Opioids

Drug Name
Opioids

Brand Name(s)
Codeine: Tylenol® #1, #2, #3, #4, Atasol®15, Atasol®30, Codeine Contin®, and generics (Tylenol® and Atasol® products also contain 300-325 mg of acetaminophen) Morphine*: Morphine®, M-Eslon®, MS-Contin®, Kadian Hydromorphone*: Dilaudid®, Hydromorph-Contin® Oxycodone*: Percocet®, generics (Percocet® also contains 325 mg of acetaminophen) Meperidine: Demerol® *Morphine, hydromorphone and oxycodone are available in both short-acting and long-acting formulations.

Drug Class
Prescription medication

Opioids are second-line medications reserved for moderate to severe knee and hip osteoarthritis pain that does not respond to adequate trials of other therapies (acetaminophen, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), tramadol, duloxetine).

  • What types of arthritis are opioids used for?

    Opioids are second-line medications reserved for moderate to severe knee and hip osteoarthritis pain that does not respond to adequate trials of other therapies (acetaminophen, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), tramadol, duloxetine).

    Opioids are not typically used to treat osteoarthritis pain. The small to moderate beneficial effects of opioids are outweighed by significantly increased risks of adverse events.

    Opioids may also be used for short periods of time to help treat pain associated with inflammatory arthritis. There is no data regarding the benefits and risks of opioid use for inflammatory arthritis beyond six weeks.

    Given the limited benefit of opioids in the treatment of arthritis and the risks of adverse events the medication should be discontinued if a meaningful benefit is not achieved relatively quickly.

  • How are opioids administered?

    Opioids are typically taken orally. One opioid (fentanyl, Duragesic®) can be administered by a patch applied to the skin, but this medication is not typically used to manage arthritis pain.

  • What is the typical dose and when do I take it?

    Short acting: 

    • Take every four to six hours when needed for pain

    Long acting:

    • 12-hour formulations: Take every 12 hours for pain
    • 24-hour formulations: Take once daily for pain

    Your prescriber will likely start therapy with a short-acting agent at a low dose, gradually increasing to the lowest effective dose to minimize adverse events. Long acting agents may be used if you are on a stable opioid dose, your pain is effectively controlled without causing adverse events and your prescriber decides you will require long term therapy with opioids.

  • How long will it take to work?

    Opioids typically begin to work within one hour.

  • When should I not take opioids and call my doctor?

    Do not take opioid medications if you have an allergy (e.g., codeine, morphine or meperidine allergy).

    Opioids should be used with caution if you have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and/or other lung conditions. Please consult your health-care provider if you have any lung conditions.

    Your prescriber may wish to avoid using opioids to manage your condition if you have a history of drug and/or alcohol abuse. Please discuss this with your prescriber.

    A number of opioid products, as noted above, also contain acetaminophen. If you are taking other acetaminophen products, please speak to your health-care providers to ensure that you are not taking more than the maximum daily dose of acetaminophen (max: 4,000 mg per day).

  • What are the side effects of opioids?

    Nausea and vomiting, constipation, sedation or drowsiness, confusion, urinary retention, dry mouth, allergic reactions (e.g., rash).

    Tolerance to opioids may develop with regular use of these medications. This means that you will require higher doses in order to achieve the same level of pain relief. Prolonged use of opioids and taking the medication other than how your prescriber has instructed increases the risk of opioid dependence. This can lead to improper use of these medications. Research has shown that people who take opioids at an appropriate dose for their level of pain are at low risk of misusing the medication. If you have concerns or questions about tolerance and dependence, please talk to your health-care provider.

  • What helps to reduce side effects?

    To prevent constipation while taking opioids you should increase your intake of water and fluids. Increasing the amount of fiber in your diet is also helpful. Your prescriber may recommend a laxative and/or stool softener to help relieve constipation if water and fiber are not effective.

    To reduce stomach upset, consider taking opioid medications with food. 

    If you experience drowsiness and sedation while taking opioids please be cautious about operating hazardous machinery, including automobiles, until you are reasonably certain that opioid therapy does not affect your ability to engage in such activities.

    People who are experiencing excessive sedation or drowsiness may consider avoiding strenuous activities or taking the medication closer to bedtime.

    Take opioid medications as instructed by your prescriber.

  • Do I need any monitoring while taking opioids?

    Routine blood tests or monitoring are not normally required while you are taking opioids. Your health-care provider should meet with you regularly to ensure that your opioid is adequately controlling your pain and not causing adverse effects.


This information was last updated November 2017, with expert advice from:

Jason Kielly, B.Sc. (pharm.), Pharm.D.
Assistant Professor, School of Pharmacy, Memorial University of Newfoundland
Clinical Pharmacist, Rheumatic Health Program, Eastern Health

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