There are many myths associated with morphine and oxycodone use. Both are referred to as “opioids.” They are the two most commonly used opioids in hospice and palliative care.

What is morphine?

Morphine is a pain reliever that acts directly on the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord). It is used to relieve moderate to severe pain or shortness of breath.

What is oxycodone?

Oxycodone is a semi-synthetic pain reliever with actions similar to those of morphine.

Why are opioids used in hospice patients?

While morphine is used in all stages of illness, many patients under hospice care have pain and/or shortness of breath which is best managed by morphine. It enhances quality of life and helps patients to live more fully and comfortably.

Can opioids help breathing?

Studies have documented that morphine relieves the sensation of shortness of breath. It can relieve “air hunger” and make breathing more comfortable.

How are opioids given?

Most often opioids are given as a pill or liquid. They can also be given by rectum, injection or IV, and can be “short-acting” or “long-acting”. When opioids are no longer needed, the dose is gradually decreased.

How much opioids can be given?

There is no maximum dose and the dose can be increased as needed. Giving them early in the disease process does not limit the amount that can be given later as the disease worsens. If a patient’s pain requires the use of strong opioids, they should be used immediately as this will help prevent changes to the nervous system that can make future pain more difficult to treat.

Opioids do not quit working over time, but the dose may need to be increased as pain increases. True addiction is rare when opioids are used to relieve pain.

How often do I take opioids?

Pain can be helped most effectively by taking pain medication on a regular basis as prescribed. Controlled release opioids are “long-acting” medicines taken every 12 hours. If there is pain between regular doses of long-acting opioids, other medications can be given as needed. These are called “break-through” or “short-acting” medicines.

What are the side effects of opioids?

Most patients find they function very well while taking pain medication. However, some experience side effects of nausea, vomiting or constipation. Sleepiness or sedation can also result, especially when morphine is first started or when the dose is increased. All side effects can be managed properly and rarely interfere with a patent’s ability to use opioids.

Will opioids hasten death?

Properly prescribed opioids do nor cause or hasten death but can make the patient more comfortable. Appropriate use of these pain relievers does not shorten life or prevent breathing.