Balancing between opioid analgesia and respiratory depression continues to challenge clinicians in perioperative, emergency department, and other acute care settings. Morphine and hydromorphone are postoperative analgesic standards. Nevertheless, their comparative effects and side effects, timing, and respective variabilities remain poorly understood. This study tested the hypothesis that IV morphine and hydromorphone differ in onset, magnitude, duration, and variability of analgesic and ventilatory effects.


The authors conducted a randomized crossover study in healthy volunteers. Forty-two subjects received a 2-h IV infusion of hydromorphone (0.05 mg/kg) or morphine (0.2 mg/kg) 1 to 2 weeks apart. The authors measured arterial opioid concentrations, analgesia in response to heat pain (maximally tolerated temperature, and verbal analog pain scores at discrete preset temperatures to determine half-maximum temperature effect), dark-adapted pupil diameter and miosis, end-expired carbon dioxide, and respiratory rate for 12 h after dosing.


For morphine and hydromorphone, respectively, maximum miosis was less (3.9 [3.4 to 4.2] vs. 4.6 mm [4.0 to 5.0], P < 0.001; median and 25 to 75% quantiles) and occurred later (3.1 ± 0.9 vs. 2.3 ± 0.7 h after infusion start, P < 0.001; mean ± SD); maximum tolerated temperature was less (49 ± 2 vs. 50 ± 2°C, P < 0.001); verbal pain scores at end-infusion at the most informative stimulus (48.2°C) were 82 ± 4 and 59 ± 3 (P < 0.001); maximum end-expired CO2 was 47 (45 to 50) and 48 mmHg (46 to 51; P = 0.007) and occurred later (5.5 ± 2.8 vs. 3.0 ± 1.5 h after infusion start, P < 0.001); and respiratory nadir was 9 ± 1 and 11 ± 2 breaths/min (P < 0.001), and occurred at similar times. The area under the temperature tolerance-time curve was less for morphine (1.8 [0.0 to 4.4]) than hydromorphone (5.4°C-h [1.6 to 12.1] P < 0.001). Interindividual variability in clinical effects did not differ between opioids.


For morphine compared to hydromorphone, analgesia and analgesia relative to respiratory depression were less, onset of miosis and respiratory depression was later, and duration of respiratory depression was longer. For each opioid, timing of the various clinical effects was not coincident. Results may enable more rational opioid selection, and suggest hydromorphone may have a better clinical profile.

Editor’s Perspective
What We Already Know about This Topic
  • All clinicians know that both morphine and hydromorphone are effective opioid analgesics. Their basic pharmacokinetics are also well-known and that hydromorphone may have a faster analgesic onset. However, a rigorous comparison of their relative impacts on a wide range of relevant “side effects” (beyond analgesia) has not been performed.

What This Article Tells Us That Is New
  • This meticulously performed comparative volunteer study examined the onset, depth, and duration of drug effects on analgesia, pupil diameter, expired carbon dioxide, and respiratory rate, along with measured arterial opioid concentrations. They showed that the relationship between analgesia and respiratory depression differed between the two drugs, with morphine having “less analgesia” for any given degree of respiratory depression as well as a delayed onset and longer duration of respiratory depression. The authors suggest that hydromorphone may, as a result, have advantages in the clinical setting.

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