Abstract

Intrathecal morphine without local anaesthetic is often added to a general anaesthetic to prevent pain after major surgery. Quantification of benefit and harm and assessment of dose–response are needed. We performed a meta-analysis of randomized trials testing intrathecal morphine alone (without local anaesthetic) in adults undergoing major surgery under general anaesthesia. Twenty-seven studies (15 cardiac–thoracic, nine abdominal, and three spine surgery) were included; 645 patients received intrathecal morphine (dose-range, 100–4000 µg). Pain intensity at rest was decreased by 2 cm on the 10 cm visual analogue scale up to 4 h after operation and by about 1 cm at 12 and 24 h. Pain intensity on movement was decreased by 2 cm at 12 and 24 h. Opioid requirement was decreased intraoperatively, and up to 48 h after operation. Morphine-sparing at 24 h was significantly greater after abdominal surgery {weighted mean difference, −24.2 mg [95% confidence interval (CI) −29.5 to −19.0]}, compared with cardiac–thoracic surgery [−9.7 mg (95% CI −17.6 to −1.80)]. The incidence of respiratory depression was increased with intrathecal morphine [odds ratio (OR) 7.86 (95% CI 1.54–40.3)], as was the incidence of pruritus [OR 3.85 (95% CI 2.40–6.15)]. There was no evidence of linear dose-responsiveness for any of the beneficial or harmful outcomes. In conclusion, intrathecal morphine decreases pain intensity at rest and on movement up to 24 h after major surgery. Morphine-sparing is more pronounced after abdominal than after cardiac–thoracic surgery. Respiratory depression remains a major safety concern.

Intrathecal opioid administration is an attractive analgesic technique since the opioid is injected directly into the cerebrospinal fluid, close to the structures of the central nervous system where the opioid acts. The procedure is simple, quick, and with a relatively low risk of technical complications or failure. Opioids are often added to intrathecally injected local anaesthetics in patients undergoing surgery without general anaesthesia, for instance, females undergoing Caesarean section.16 In some institutions, an opioid alone, typically morphine,23 is administered intrathecally as a single-dose injection before operation in patients undergoing major surgery under general anaesthesia. This adjuvant analgesic technique is expected to decrease postoperative pain intensity and opioid requirements, and to fasten recovery. The first clinical study testing intrathecal morphine in this context was published in 1979.49 Since then, this analgesic method has been the subject of a large number of trials and reviews,11,32,37 illustrating an ongoing interest in the technique. Although most relevant studies have reported some decrease in postoperative pain intensity, the magnitude of the analgesic effect remains unclear and data on dose-responsiveness controversial,1,3,8,18,22,39 and there has been no consensus on the optimal dose of intrathecal morphine when used alone. It has been suggested that the optimal dose depends on the surgical setting and that there is a ceiling analgesic effect above which the risk of adverse effects outweighed the benefits of improved analgesia.37 This, however, has never been shown formally. Morphine, which is relatively less hydrophobic than other opioids, has a longer residence time in the cerebrospinal fluid and therefore may reach rostral sites over a longer period than other opioids.47 Consequently, there is a potential of achieving adequate and long-lasting analgesia with an intrathecal injection of morphine.32 However, the downside of this less hydrophobic character is an increased risk of adverse effects, especially postoperative respiratory depression,29 which remains a particular concern.

The primary aim of this systematic review and meta-analysis was to quantify the analgesic effect of intrathecal morphine (without local anaesthetic) in patients undergoing surgery with a general anaesthetic. Secondary objectives were to quantify the harmful effects and to test for dose-responsiveness.

Methods

Literature search

We conducted a systematic search for published full reports of randomized, controlled trials that compared a single intrathecal dose of morphine with intrathecal placebo, a sham-injection, or no treatment in patients undergoing major surgery (abdominal, thoracic, orthopaedic, and spinal) under general anaesthesia. Relevant studies had to report on pain outcomes or adverse effects that were possibly related to the intrathecal morphine. We excluded studies with <10 patients per group,28 that were performed in awake patients without a general anaesthetic, that tested the efficacy of morphine as an adjunct to intrathecal local anaesthetic, or that tested combinations of intrathecal opioids.

We searched in Medline, the Cochrane Library, and Embase using the terms ‘opiates’, ‘opioid*’, ‘morphine’, ‘pain’, ‘intrathecal’, ‘injection’, ‘an(a)esthesia’, ‘analgesia’, and combinations of those, without language restriction and up to November 2007. Additional studies were identified from the bibliographies of retrieved reports. Authors were contacted to obtain additional information if necessary.

We applied a modified Oxford scale (four items, seven points) to assess the quality of data reporting.20 As we included only randomized trials, the minimum score was 1. One author scored all the studies to be included (N.M.). The scores were independently checked by two other authors (N.E. and C.L.). Any disagreement was resolved through discussion with the fourth author (M.R.T.).

Data extraction

One author (N.M.) extracted information on number of patients, surgery, dose of intrathecal morphine, intra- and postoperative analgesic regimens, outcomes, and adverse events; two authors (N.E. and C.L.) independently checked all extracted data. Relevant pain outcomes were pain intensity at rest or on movement or on coughing, and intra- or postoperative opioid-sparing. Definitions of adverse effects were taken as reported in the original trials.

Variable morphine doses were extrapolated to a fixed dose using the average body weight of the patient population reported in the study. When no bodyweight was reported, we assumed that it was 70 kg.

We extrapolated 0–100 mm visual analogue scales to a 0 (no pain) to 10 (worst pain) cm scale. Other numerical scales or verbal scales were not considered.

In some trials, the presence or absence of pruritus was reported; in others, the intensity of pruritus was recorded on an intensity scale, or it was classified as mild, moderate, or severe. Since scales were different across trials, we dichotomized the data as the number of patients having any degree of pruritus.

Meta-analysis

We analysed outcomes only when they were reported in at least five trials, or in at least 100 patients receiving intrathecal morphine. Continuous outcomes were extracted as means and standard deviations or standard errors. When these data were not reported, we contacted the authors. If they did not respond, and the data were presented graphically, we extracted the data from the graphs. We computed weighted mean differences (WMD) with 95% confidence interval (CI) using a fixed effect model when the studies showed homogeneous results (P for heterogeneity >0.1). When the results were heterogeneous (P<0.1), we searched for the source of heterogeneity. As in similar previous analyses,21 there was an intention to investigate whether differences in reported effects could be explained by differences in the dose of the intrathecal morphine. When there was no evidence of dose-responsiveness, a summary estimate using the random effects model was computed.

Binary outcomes were extracted as the presence or absence of an effect. We computed Peto odds ratios (OR) with 95% CI. If the 95% CI did not include 1, we assumed that the difference between intrathecal morphine and control was statistically significant at the 5% level. To estimate the clinical relevance of a beneficial or harmful effect, we computed numbers needed to treat or to harm (NNT/NNH) with 95% CI using the OR and the control event rate. CIs around the NNT/NNH point estimates were computed only, when the result was statistically significant.44 For binary outcomes showing heterogeneous results across trials, we searched for dose-responsiveness using meta-regression.

Analyses were conducted using Microsoft® Excel® 11.3 for Mac®, Review Manager [RevMan (computer program) version 4.2, Copenhagen: The Nordic Cochrane Centre, The Cochrane Collaboration], Maple 9.5 (University of Geneva, Switzerland), and STATA 9 (Version 9, STATA Corp., College Station, TX, USA).

Results

Retrieved trials

We identified 70 trials and subsequently excluded 43 (Fig. 1). Of the excluded studies, one was published twice.45,46 We contacted 21 authors for supplementary data, 12 answered. We eventually analysed 27 valid trials with data on 1205 adult patients, of whom 645 received intrathecal morphine (Table 1).13,5,6,10,1215,17,18,25,27,30,31,34,36,3943,46,48,50,51 Doses ranged from 100 to 4000 µg. Twenty-three trials tested a single dose, and four were dose-finding studies that compared two1,3,18 or three39 doses with an inactive control group.

Fig 1

Flow chart of retrieved, excluded, and analysed trials. RCT, randomized, controlled trial. Relevant trials tested intrathecal morphine alone (without a local anaesthetic) in patients undergoing a general anaesthetic for major surgery.

Fig 1

Flow chart of retrieved, excluded, and analysed trials. RCT, randomized, controlled trial. Relevant trials tested intrathecal morphine alone (without a local anaesthetic) in patients undergoing a general anaesthetic for major surgery.

Table 1

Included randomized trials of intrathecal morphine alone in patients undergoing surgery with a general anaesthetic. PCA, patient-controlled analgesia; i.v, intravenous; i.m, intramuscular; s.c., subcutaneous

First author, year of publication Comparisons, all regimens are intrathecal unless otherwise stated (no. of analysed patients) [data not analysed] Administration of intrathecal morphine before or after surgery Type of surgery Duration of surgery, range of means unless otherwise stated (min) Intraoperative rescue analgesic Postoperative rescue analgesic Randomization Concealment Blinding Drop outs 
Alhashemi, 20001 1. Morphine 250 µg (16) Before Cardiac 198–216 Fentanyl Morphine i.v. 
 2. Morphine 500 µg (15)          
 3. Lidocaine s.c. (considered as sham treatment) (19)          
Askar, 20072 1. Morphine 10 µg kg−1 (17) Before Thoracic and cardiac 246–269 Remifentanil Morphine PCA 
 2. No treatment (16)          
Aun, 19853 1. Morphine 2000 µg (20) Before Cardiac Not reported Fentanyl Papaveretum 
 2. Morphine 4000 µg (20)          
 3. No treatment, sticky plaster (20)          
Beaussier, 20065 1. Morphine 300 µg (26) Before Abdominal 240–252 Sufentanil Morphine PCA 
 2. NaCl s.c. (26)          
Blay, 20066 1. Morphine 200 µg (15) Before Abdominal Not reported Sufentanil Acetaminophen i.v. 
 2. NaCl s.c. (15)     Tramadol i.v.     
      Morphine i.v.     
Boonmak, 200710 1. Morphine 300 µg (40) Before Abdominal 146–150 Not reported Morphine PCA 
 2. No treatment (40)          
Casey, 198712 1. Morphine 20 µg kg−1 (19) Before Cardiac Not reported Fentanyl Morphine i.v. 
 2. NaCl (21)          
Chaney, 199615 1. Morphine 4000 µg (30) Before Cardiac Not reported Fentanyl Morphine PCA 
 2. NaCl (30)          
Chaney, 199713 1. Morphine 10 µg kg−1 (19) Before Cardiac Not reported Fentanyl Morphine PCA 
 2. NaCl (21)          
Chaney, 199914 1. Morphine 10 µg kg−1 (20) Before Cardiac Not reported Fentanyl Morphine PCA 
 2. NaCl (20)          
Devys, 200317 1a. Morphine 300 µg for submesocolic surgery (15) Before Abdominal 193–222 (median) Sufentanil Morphine PCA 
 1b. Morphine 400 µg for supramesocolic surgery (15)          
 2. No treatment (30)          
El-Hakeem, 200318 1. Morphine 250 µg (15) Before Cardiac 218–220 Fentanyl Morphine i.v. 
 2. Morphine 500 µg (15)          
 3. NaCl (15)          
Jacobsohn, 200525 1. Morphine 6 µg kg−1 of ideal body weight (22) Before Cardiac 202–228 Sufentanil Morphine PCA 
 2. NaCl (21)          
Karaman, 200627 1. Morphine 5 µg kg−1 (12) Before Hysterectomy 101–105 Remifentanil Morphine PCA 
 2. No treatment (12)          
Lena, 200330 1. Morphine 4 µg kg−1 (14) Before Cardiac 212–292 (median) Sufentanil Morphine PCA 
 [2. Morphine 4 µg kg−1+ clonidine 1 µg kg−1 (15)]          
 3. No treatment (16)          
Liu, 200131 [1. Sufentanil 50 µg (10)] Before Thoracic 132 Fentanyl Morphine PCA 
 2. Morphine 500 µg (10)          
 [3. Sufentanil 50 µg+morphine 500 µg (10)]          
 4. Lidocaine s.c. (considered as sham treatment) (19)          
Mehta, 200434 1. Morphine 8 µg kg−1 (53) Before Cardiac 226–236 Fentanyl Tramadol i.v. 
 2. NaCl s.c., adhesive band on back (47)     Diclofenac i.m.     
      Morphine i.v.     
O'Neil, 198536 1. Morphine 1000 µg (24) After Spinal Not reported Not reported Papaveretum i.m. 
 2. No treatment (22)          
Sarma, 199339 1. Morphine 100 µg (20) After Hysterectomy Not reported Fentanyl Meperidine i.m. 
 2. Morphine 300 µg (20)          
 3. Morphine 500 µg (20)          
 4. No treatment (20)          
Sebel, 198540 1. Morphine 4000 µg (10) Before Cardiac Not reported Fentanyl Papaveretum (route not reported) 
 2. No treatment (10)          
Techanivate, 200341 1. Morphine 300 µg (20) After Spinal 214–240 Fentanyl Morphine PCA 
 2. NaCl (20)          
Togal, 200043 1. Morphine 10 µg kg−1 (10) Before Abdominal Not reported Fentanyl Meperidine i.m. 
 2. No treatment (10)          
Togal, 200442 1. Morphine 100 µg (25) After Hysterectomy Not reported Not reported Morphine PCA 
 2. NaCl (25)          
Turker, 200546 1. Morphine 10 µg kg−1 (22) Before Cardiac 182–194 Remifentanil Morphine PCA 
 2. No treatment (21)          
Vanstrum, 198848 1. Morphine 500 µg (16) Before Cardiac Not reported None Morphine i.v. 
 2. NaCl (14)          
Yokota, 200450 1. Morphine 500 µg (10) Before Hysterectomy 95–102 Not reported Diclofenac 
 [2. Morphine 500 µg+norepinephrine 5 µg (10)]     Indomethacine (route not reported)     
 3. NaCl (10)          
Yorukoglu, 200551 1. Morphine 100 µg (20) After Spinal 91–101 Not reported Meperidine i.m. 
 [2. Morphine 2000 µg in epidural space (20)]          
 [3. Bupivacaine in paraspinal muscle (20)]          
 4. NaCl in paraspinal muscle (20)          
First author, year of publication Comparisons, all regimens are intrathecal unless otherwise stated (no. of analysed patients) [data not analysed] Administration of intrathecal morphine before or after surgery Type of surgery Duration of surgery, range of means unless otherwise stated (min) Intraoperative rescue analgesic Postoperative rescue analgesic Randomization Concealment Blinding Drop outs 
Alhashemi, 20001 1. Morphine 250 µg (16) Before Cardiac 198–216 Fentanyl Morphine i.v. 
 2. Morphine 500 µg (15)          
 3. Lidocaine s.c. (considered as sham treatment) (19)          
Askar, 20072 1. Morphine 10 µg kg−1 (17) Before Thoracic and cardiac 246–269 Remifentanil Morphine PCA 
 2. No treatment (16)          
Aun, 19853 1. Morphine 2000 µg (20) Before Cardiac Not reported Fentanyl Papaveretum 
 2. Morphine 4000 µg (20)          
 3. No treatment, sticky plaster (20)          
Beaussier, 20065 1. Morphine 300 µg (26) Before Abdominal 240–252 Sufentanil Morphine PCA 
 2. NaCl s.c. (26)          
Blay, 20066 1. Morphine 200 µg (15) Before Abdominal Not reported Sufentanil Acetaminophen i.v. 
 2. NaCl s.c. (15)     Tramadol i.v.     
      Morphine i.v.     
Boonmak, 200710 1. Morphine 300 µg (40) Before Abdominal 146–150 Not reported Morphine PCA 
 2. No treatment (40)          
Casey, 198712 1. Morphine 20 µg kg−1 (19) Before Cardiac Not reported Fentanyl Morphine i.v. 
 2. NaCl (21)          
Chaney, 199615 1. Morphine 4000 µg (30) Before Cardiac Not reported Fentanyl Morphine PCA 
 2. NaCl (30)          
Chaney, 199713 1. Morphine 10 µg kg−1 (19) Before Cardiac Not reported Fentanyl Morphine PCA 
 2. NaCl (21)          
Chaney, 199914 1. Morphine 10 µg kg−1 (20) Before Cardiac Not reported Fentanyl Morphine PCA 
 2. NaCl (20)          
Devys, 200317 1a. Morphine 300 µg for submesocolic surgery (15) Before Abdominal 193–222 (median) Sufentanil Morphine PCA 
 1b. Morphine 400 µg for supramesocolic surgery (15)          
 2. No treatment (30)          
El-Hakeem, 200318 1. Morphine 250 µg (15) Before Cardiac 218–220 Fentanyl Morphine i.v. 
 2. Morphine 500 µg (15)          
 3. NaCl (15)          
Jacobsohn, 200525 1. Morphine 6 µg kg−1 of ideal body weight (22) Before Cardiac 202–228 Sufentanil Morphine PCA 
 2. NaCl (21)          
Karaman, 200627 1. Morphine 5 µg kg−1 (12) Before Hysterectomy 101–105 Remifentanil Morphine PCA 
 2. No treatment (12)          
Lena, 200330 1. Morphine 4 µg kg−1 (14) Before Cardiac 212–292 (median) Sufentanil Morphine PCA 
 [2. Morphine 4 µg kg−1+ clonidine 1 µg kg−1 (15)]          
 3. No treatment (16)          
Liu, 200131 [1. Sufentanil 50 µg (10)] Before Thoracic 132 Fentanyl Morphine PCA 
 2. Morphine 500 µg (10)          
 [3. Sufentanil 50 µg+morphine 500 µg (10)]          
 4. Lidocaine s.c. (considered as sham treatment) (19)          
Mehta, 200434 1. Morphine 8 µg kg−1 (53) Before Cardiac 226–236 Fentanyl Tramadol i.v. 
 2. NaCl s.c., adhesive band on back (47)     Diclofenac i.m.     
      Morphine i.v.     
O'Neil, 198536 1. Morphine 1000 µg (24) After Spinal Not reported Not reported Papaveretum i.m. 
 2. No treatment (22)          
Sarma, 199339 1. Morphine 100 µg (20) After Hysterectomy Not reported Fentanyl Meperidine i.m. 
 2. Morphine 300 µg (20)          
 3. Morphine 500 µg (20)          
 4. No treatment (20)          
Sebel, 198540 1. Morphine 4000 µg (10) Before Cardiac Not reported Fentanyl Papaveretum (route not reported) 
 2. No treatment (10)          
Techanivate, 200341 1. Morphine 300 µg (20) After Spinal 214–240 Fentanyl Morphine PCA 
 2. NaCl (20)          
Togal, 200043 1. Morphine 10 µg kg−1 (10) Before Abdominal Not reported Fentanyl Meperidine i.m. 
 2. No treatment (10)          
Togal, 200442 1. Morphine 100 µg (25) After Hysterectomy Not reported Not reported Morphine PCA 
 2. NaCl (25)          
Turker, 200546 1. Morphine 10 µg kg−1 (22) Before Cardiac 182–194 Remifentanil Morphine PCA 
 2. No treatment (21)          
Vanstrum, 198848 1. Morphine 500 µg (16) Before Cardiac Not reported None Morphine i.v. 
 2. NaCl (14)          
Yokota, 200450 1. Morphine 500 µg (10) Before Hysterectomy 95–102 Not reported Diclofenac 
 [2. Morphine 500 µg+norepinephrine 5 µg (10)]     Indomethacine (route not reported)     
 3. NaCl (10)          
Yorukoglu, 200551 1. Morphine 100 µg (20) After Spinal 91–101 Not reported Meperidine i.m. 
 [2. Morphine 2000 µg in epidural space (20)]          
 [3. Bupivacaine in paraspinal muscle (20)]          
 4. NaCl in paraspinal muscle (20)          

The studies were published between 1985 and 2007; seven had been published since 2005. Since the earliest trials, the tested doses have consistently decreased (Fig. 2). The studies were performed in 12 countries: Turkey (six trials), France (five), the UK and USA (three each), Canada and Thailand (two each), and Saudi Arabia, Egypt, India, Japan, The Netherlands, and Sweden (one each). Group sizes ranged from 10 to 47 patients. The median quality score was 3 (range, 1–6). All except four trials (14.8%) were properly blinded.2,17,40,43 Surgery was cardiac (13 studies), abdominal (five), hysterectomy (four), spine (three), thoracic (one), or cardiac and thoracic (one).

Fig 2

Relationship between the year of publication of the trials and the doses of intrathecal morphine that were investigated in the trials. Data are from 27 placebo-controlled randomized trials. Each symbol represents one trial arm that tested intrathecal morphine; number of symbols does not add up since some trials tested more than one morphine dose.

Fig 2

Relationship between the year of publication of the trials and the doses of intrathecal morphine that were investigated in the trials. Data are from 27 placebo-controlled randomized trials. Each symbol represents one trial arm that tested intrathecal morphine; number of symbols does not add up since some trials tested more than one morphine dose.

Intraoperative fentanyl or sufentanil consumption

Nine trials reported on intraoperative fentanyl or sufentanil consumption.1,3,5,6,14,17,31,34,40 Intrathecal morphine (280–4000 µg) was always administered before surgery. Median time of surgery was 226 min (range, 132–252). We computed fentanyl equivalents of sufentanil doses by multiplying the average sufentanil doses by 10.9 In control groups, average intraoperative fentanyl equivalents ranged from 300 to 3800 µg (median, 883). Overall, there was a significant decrease in fentanyl equivalents during surgery with intrathecal morphine, WMD, −145 µg (95% CI −181 to −109). The data were homogeneous (P=0.13), indicating lack of dose-responsiveness.

Postoperative morphine consumption

Eleven trials reported postoperative cumulative morphine consumption at 24 h.1,5,6,10,13,14,17,30,32,42,46 In controls, median consumption was 36 mg. When all trials were combined independent of the type of surgery, 24 h morphine consumption was significantly decreased with intrathecal morphine, WMD, −16.9 mg (95% CI −23.7 to −10.1) (Fig. 3). The data were heterogeneous (P<0.001); however, there was no evidence of dose-responsiveness.

Fig 3

Cumulative 24 h consumption of i.v. morphine (in milligrams) for break-through pain after operation. IT, intrathecal; WMD, weighted mean difference; CI, confidence interval. On the bubble graph, each bubble represents one trial; sizes of the bubbles are proportional to sizes of the trials.

Fig 3

Cumulative 24 h consumption of i.v. morphine (in milligrams) for break-through pain after operation. IT, intrathecal; WMD, weighted mean difference; CI, confidence interval. On the bubble graph, each bubble represents one trial; sizes of the bubbles are proportional to sizes of the trials.

In an attempt to identify the source of heterogeneity, we performed a subgroup analysis, taking into account the type of surgery (Fig. 3). In six trials, patients underwent thoracic or cardiac surgery; the median dose of intrathecal morphine was 500 µg (range, 250–700).1,13,14,30,31,46 Median 24 h morphine consumption in controls was 34.5 mg; with intrathecal morphine, this was significantly decreased (WMD, −9.7 mg). In five trials, patients underwent abdominal surgery including hysterectomy; the median dose of intrathecal morphine was 300 µg (range, 100–400).5,6,10,17,42 Median 24 h morphine consumption in controls was 34.8 mg. In this subgroup, postoperative morphine-sparing was more pronounced (WMD, −24.2 mg). The 95% CI of the point estimates of the two subgroups did not overlap. In both subgroups, heterogeneity was decreased (thoracic and cardiac surgery, P=0.005; abdominal surgery, P=0.04).

Six studies reported on morphine consumption during the second postoperative day;5,6,13,14,17,41 median 24–48 h morphine consumption in controls was 21 mg. When these trials were combined, 24–48 h morphine consumption was significantly decreased with intrathecal morphine, WMD −6.5 mg (95% CI −9.9 to −3.2). There were not enough studies to allow a subgroup analysis by the type of surgery.

Postoperative pain intensity

Pain intensity at rest was reported in four trials during cardiac surgery,30,34,36,46,48 in two for abdominal surgery,6,10 and in two for spinal surgery.41,51 With intrathecal morphine, pain intensity was significantly decreased at 2, 4, 12, and 24 h (Fig. 4). Up to 4 h after surgery, pain intensity at rest was decreased by about 2 cm on the 10 cm visual analogue scale. At 12 and 24 h, pain intensity was decreased by about 1 cm. At all time points, the data were heterogeneous; however, there was no evidence for dose-responsiveness.

Fig 4

Pain intensity (0–10-point scale, ranging from 0, no pain, to 10, maximum pain) at rest at 2, 4, 12, and 24 h after operation. IT, intrathecal; WMD, weighted mean difference; CI, confidence interval. On the bubble graphs, axes are pain intensities (0–10-point scale). Each bubble represents one trial; sizes of the bubbles are proportional to sizes of the trials.

Fig 4

Pain intensity (0–10-point scale, ranging from 0, no pain, to 10, maximum pain) at rest at 2, 4, 12, and 24 h after operation. IT, intrathecal; WMD, weighted mean difference; CI, confidence interval. On the bubble graphs, axes are pain intensities (0–10-point scale). Each bubble represents one trial; sizes of the bubbles are proportional to sizes of the trials.

Pain intensity on movement or during coughing at 12 or at 24 h was reported in two studies in abdominal surgery6,10 and two in cardiac surgery.34,46 Pain intensity was significantly decreased in patients receiving intrathecal morphine at 12 h [WMD, −2.0 (95% CI −3.1 to −1.0)] and at 24 h [WMD, −1.7 (95% CI −2.7 to −0.8)]. The data were heterogeneous; however, there was no evidence for dose-responsiveness. For postoperative pain intensity, subgroups were too small to allow for sensitivity analysis according to the type of surgery.

Further beneficial outcomes

Duration of hospital stay was decreased by 0.5 days (Table 2). The incidence of pulmonary complications (defined as radiological evidence of atelectasis or consolidation, need for oxygen therapy, or hypoxaemia) showed a tendency in favour of intrathecal morphine (OR, 0.62) (Table 3). Intrathecal morphine had no effect on time to tracheal extubation (Table 2).

Table 2

Summary statistics of beneficial continuous outcomes. WMD, weighted mean difference; CI, confidence interval; IT, intrathecal; hetero, heterogeneity; N/A, not applicable (i.e. dose-responsiveness was sought only when the result was statistically significant and when the data appeared to be heterogeneous)

Outcome No. of trials No. of patients receiving IT morphine/no. of controls Outcome in controls, median (range) WMD (95% CI) P hetero P dose–response 
Time to extubation (min), cardiac surgery only 180/180 564 (312–1374) −12.3 (−75.2 to 50.7) 0.030 N/A 
Duration of hospital stay (days) 210/173 7 (5–14) −0.49 (−0.89 to −0.09) 0.950 N/A 
Outcome No. of trials No. of patients receiving IT morphine/no. of controls Outcome in controls, median (range) WMD (95% CI) P hetero P dose–response 
Time to extubation (min), cardiac surgery only 180/180 564 (312–1374) −12.3 (−75.2 to 50.7) 0.030 N/A 
Duration of hospital stay (days) 210/173 7 (5–14) −0.49 (−0.89 to −0.09) 0.950 N/A 
Table 3

Summary statistics of further dichotomous outcomes. IT, intrathecal; OR, odds ratio; CI, confidence interval; NNT/H, number needed to treat or to harm (a negative number needed to treat is a number needed to harm); hetero, heterogeneity; N/A, not applicable (i.e. dose-responsiveness was sought only when the data appeared to be heterogeneous). *95% CI around the NNT/H point estimate is shown only for statistically significant results

Outcome No. of trials No. of patients with event/total no. of patients (%)
 
OR (95% CI) NNT/H (95% CI) P hetero P dose–response
 
IT morphine Control 
Pulmonary complications (any) 25/160 (15.6) 33/153 (21.6) 0.62 (0.34–1.16) 17* 0.610 N/A 
Number of patients who are sedated at 24 h 26/136 (19.1) 26/125 (20.8) 0.64 (0.31–1.36) 59* 0.285 N/A 
Respiratory depression        
 All studies reporting on the absence or presence of respiratory depression 21 6/502 (1.2) 0/440 (0) 7.86 (1.54–40.3) −84 (−409 to −47) 0.990 N/A 
 Only studies reporting on the presence of respiratory depression 6/89 (6.7) 0/83 (0) 7.86 (1.54–40.3) −15 (−65 to −8) 0.994 N/A 
Pruritus        
 Any pruritus 18 93/435 (21.4) 19/358 (5.3) 3.85 (2.40–6.15) −6 (−9 to −5) 0.041 0.753 
 Pruritus needing treatment 6/117 (5.1) 0/113 (0) 7.39 (1.48–37.0) −20 (−88 to −11) 1.000 N/A 
Urinary retention 18/155 (11.6) 14/164 (8.5) 2.35 (1.00–5.51) −33* 0.130 N/A 
Emesis        
 Nausea 10 60/197 (30.5) 47/194 (24.2) 1.22 (0.77–1.95) −16* 0.612 N/A 
 Vomiting 10 48/202 (23.8) 43/190 (22.6) 1.05 (0.63–1.73) −88* 0.230 N/A 
Outcome No. of trials No. of patients with event/total no. of patients (%)
 
OR (95% CI) NNT/H (95% CI) P hetero P dose–response
 
IT morphine Control 
Pulmonary complications (any) 25/160 (15.6) 33/153 (21.6) 0.62 (0.34–1.16) 17* 0.610 N/A 
Number of patients who are sedated at 24 h 26/136 (19.1) 26/125 (20.8) 0.64 (0.31–1.36) 59* 0.285 N/A 
Respiratory depression        
 All studies reporting on the absence or presence of respiratory depression 21 6/502 (1.2) 0/440 (0) 7.86 (1.54–40.3) −84 (−409 to −47) 0.990 N/A 
 Only studies reporting on the presence of respiratory depression 6/89 (6.7) 0/83 (0) 7.86 (1.54–40.3) −15 (−65 to −8) 0.994 N/A 
Pruritus        
 Any pruritus 18 93/435 (21.4) 19/358 (5.3) 3.85 (2.40–6.15) −6 (−9 to −5) 0.041 0.753 
 Pruritus needing treatment 6/117 (5.1) 0/113 (0) 7.39 (1.48–37.0) −20 (−88 to −11) 1.000 N/A 
Urinary retention 18/155 (11.6) 14/164 (8.5) 2.35 (1.00–5.51) −33* 0.130 N/A 
Emesis        
 Nausea 10 60/197 (30.5) 47/194 (24.2) 1.22 (0.77–1.95) −16* 0.612 N/A 
 Vomiting 10 48/202 (23.8) 43/190 (22.6) 1.05 (0.63–1.73) −88* 0.230 N/A 

Adverse effects related to intrathecal morphine

In 21 trials, the authors monitored the patients for signs of respiratory depression.1,2,5,6,10,13,17,18,27,30,31,34,36,39–43,46,48,51 Definitions of respiratory depression included a respiratory frequency <8 or <10 breaths min−1 (bpm), oxygen saturation <85% or <96%, or the need for naloxone to maintain an adequate tidal volume. Some trials did not provide a clear definition of respiratory depression.

Six cases of respiratory depression were reported in three trials.5,34,40 Respiratory depression occurred exclusively in patients who had received intrathecal morphine and not in controls. One study was double-blinded, included patients aged >70 yr (average, 78 yr), the dose of intrathecal morphine was 300 µg, and postoperative pain treatment was with patient-controlled analgesia with morphine.5 Four patients had a ventilatory frequency <10 bpm.5 The second study was also double-blinded, the average age of the patients was 58 yr, the dose of intrathecal morphine was 560 µg, and postoperative pain treatment was with i.v. tramadol or morphine.34 One patient had a ventilatory frequency <8 bpm and needed naloxone.34 The third study had an open design, the average age of the patients was 54 yr, the dose of intrathecal morphine was 4000 µg, and postoperative pain treatment was with papaveretum.40 One patient required naloxone to maintain an adequate tidal volume.40 When these data were combined, the risk of respiratory depression was significantly increased in patients receiving intrathecal morphine; OR 7.86 (95% CI 1.54–40.3) (Table 3). When data from all 21 trials that reported on the presence or absence of respiratory depression were combined (i.e. including those that searched for, but did not report on, respiratory depression), the NNH was 84. When only the three trials that reported on patients who had respiratory depression were considered, the NNH decreased (i.e. worsened) to 15. There were no reports of patients who needed re-intubation of the trachea due to respiratory depression.

Eighteen studies reported on pruritus.1,3,5,6,1215,17,18,27,31,39,42,43,46,48,51 The incidence of pruritus was significantly increased with intrathecal morphine (Table 3), OR 3.85 (95% CI 2.40–6.15), NNH 6. The data were heterogeneous; however, there was no evidence of dose-responsiveness. Four trials reported on the number of patients requiring treatment for pruritus.13,34,41,42 None of the control patients required treatment, compared with an average of 5.1% of those receiving intrathecal morphine (Table 3). This difference was statistically significant, OR 7.39 (95% CI 1.48–37.0), NNH 20. The data were homogeneous.

The incidence of urinary retention was slightly increased in patients receiving intrathecal morphine; the 95% CI around the OR (2.35) included 1 (Table 3). The incidence of sedation and nausea and vomiting was not affected (Table 3).

Sensitivity analyses

We performed sensitivity analyses to test the impact of the quality of data reporting (i.e. the modified Oxford scale) and the age of the trials (i.e. year of publication) on outcomes. We selected outcomes that were reported in the majority of trials; these were cumulative 24 h morphine consumption and 24 h pain intensity at rest. We compared trials that had a score <3 (i.e. the median of all trials) with those that had a score >3, and we compared trials that were older than 15 yr with those that were younger. None of these sensitivity analyses revealed any statistically significant difference between subgroups (data not shown).

Discussion

Comprehensive reviews have tried to summarize the role of intrathecal opioids alone without local anaesthetics for the control of postoperative pain after major surgery.32,37 These reviews have not provided quantitative estimates of beneficial and harmful effects of intrathecal morphine. However, for rational decision-making, it is not only important to know whether an intervention works, but how well it works. Similarly, we not only need to know whether there are intervention-related adverse effects, but how often these occur. Intrathecal morphine without a local anaesthetic seems to be still a popular analgesic technique in many institutions around the world; the 27 analysed trials were conducted in 12 countries, and seven were published within the last 3 yr.

Several results emerge from our analysis, some of which confirm what has already been reported about intrathecal morphine, some add more precise knowledge, and some refute what is generally believed in this context.

It is known that intrathecal morphine, when injected alone in patients undergoing major surgery under general anaesthesia, provides postoperative analgesia. However, the degree of the analgesic efficacy is less clear. Our analysis allows for quantification of this beneficial effect and, consequently, for indirect comparison with the efficacy of alternative analgesic techniques that are frequently used in similar surgical settings. In adults undergoing major abdominal or cardio-thoracic surgery under general anaesthesia, a single dose of intrathecal morphine decreases 24 h pain intensity at rest by about 1 cm on the 10 cm scale. The effect is more pronounced on movement. This degree of analgesic efficacy appears to be greater than with intraoperative low-dose ketamine (reduction in pain intensity at 24 h, about 0.4 cm),20 and similar to postoperative non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs or the gold-standard neuraxial analgesia technique, that is, epidural analgesia with local anaesthetic (with both, reduction in pain intensity at 24 h, about 1 cm).7,19

Intra- and postoperative opioid-sparing may be regarded as surrogates of the true efficacy of an analgesic. Patients who received intrathecal morphine needed less fentanyl equivalents intraoperatively and they received considerably less i.v. morphine for rescue analgesia after operation. It is a new finding that the morphine-sparing effect was weaker after cardio-thoracic than after abdominal surgery, even though the dose of intrathecal morphine used in cardio-thoracic surgery patients was considerably higher. Morphine-sparing after abdominal surgery was greater than with intraoperative ketamine (about 16 mg per 24 h)20 or postoperative non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (range, 10–20 mg per 24 h, depending on the regimen).19,33 The limited amount of morphine that was spared after cardio-thoracic surgery was only comparable with the perioperative usage of acetaminophen (about 8 mg per 24 h).19,38 Thus, the appropriateness of intrathecal morphine in patients undergoing thoracic or cardiac surgery may be questioned. The surgery-related difference could not be attributed to differences in the baseline risks; the average 24 h morphine consumption in control patients was almost identical in both subgroups. A reasonable hypothesis relates to the different distances from the drug administration site (which is always lumbar) to the spinal cord segments receiving the nociceptive input (which may be lumbar or thoracic).

A further unexpected finding was the lack of an analgesic dose–response. This does not mean that there is none. However, it implies that the published literature does not allow the establishment of a dose–response relationship with confidence, and hence the minimal effective dose of intrathecal morphine when used alone in patients undergoing major surgery remains unknown. This is remarkable as a large dose range was tested. We cannot exclude that all doses were on the upper horizontal part of the sigmoid-shaped dose–response curve. Consequently, very low doses of intrathecal morphine should be tested. The inability to show a dose–response challenges the conclusions of two previously published reviews32,37 and three dose-finding studies.3,8,39 Three further dose-finding studies were unable to find an analgesic dose–response.1,18,22

It is known that intrathecal morphine, alone or as an adjuvant to a local anaesthetic, increases the risk of respiratory depression. As respiratory depression is a major risk,29 it is important to quantify that risk. None of the control patients experienced respiratory depression, although they were, on average, given more opioids intraoperatively and substantially more i.v. morphine for break-through pain after operation. To estimate the risk that was related to the intrathecal morphine, we used two denominators. When we considered exclusively the studies that reported cases of respiratory depression, the rate with intrathecal morphine was 6.7%. Since none of the controls had symptoms of respiratory depression, this incidence translated into an NNH of 15. This may be seen as a worst-case scenario, and it is likely to overestimate the true additional risk. When we considered all studies that reported the presence or absence of respiratory depression (i.e. including those that did not find any), the rate with intrathecal morphine decreased to 1.2%, and accordingly, the NNH improved to 84. We must, therefore, assume that between 15 and 84 patients undergoing surgery with a general anaesthetic and receiving i.v. morphine for break-through pain after operation need to receive intrathecal morphine for one additional patient to develop respiratory depression who would not have done so had they not received the morphine intrathecally. Our estimate matches a previously reported estimate from a large case series where patients received intrathecal morphine 200–800 µg before operation and patient-controlled analgesia with i.v. morphine or meperidine after operation.24 This result is alarming but has to be interpreted cautiously. Respiratory depression due to intrathecal morphine is a rare event and none of these studies was designed to study that risk. Some cases of respiratory depression may have been missed, which could have affected our estimate in either ways. Also, one of the trials that reported cases of respiratory depression was not blinded. Observer bias may lead to the overestimation of the beneficial effects of a treatment,26 but it is not clear if this applies to harmful effects. Finally, in four of the six cases, the definition of respiratory depression was a ventilatory frequency <10 bpm, which may not necessarily be perceived as a real threat. None of the patients required tracheal re-intubation. Previous studies on the impact of the dose of intrathecal morphine alone on the risk of respiratory depression have inconsistent results.4,8,22 The decreasing doses tested over the years (Fig. 2) suggest that investigators have tried to further decrease the risk of respiratory depression but to maintain analgesic efficacy. However, there is evidence from trials that were included in our analysis,5 and from others,24 that respiratory depression may occur with doses as low as 200 or 300 µg of intrathecal morphine.

A major concern is the uncertainty as to how, where, and for how long these patients need to be monitored. It has been suggested that after intrathecal morphine administration (200–600 µg), clinical signs or symptoms including ventilatory frequency, level of sedation, or pupil size were not reliable predictors of respiratory depression.4 In addition, hypercarbia may occur despite a normal ventilatory frequency, and a sedation score may be more sensitive for detection of respiratory depression than capillary oxygen saturation or expired carbon dioxide levels.29 The most practical and effective method for detection of respiratory depression is unknown. Whether these patients should be monitored in a high-dependency post-anaesthetic care area or whether they may be transferred to a regular surgical ward is an essential question23 which raises important logistic and financial issues. These are likely to challenge the use of intrathecal morphine in settings where limited resources do not allow for appropriate postoperative surveillance.

There were further outcomes and for some, the results were surprising. For instance, there was no significant beneficial effect of intrathecal morphine on postoperative pulmonary complications. This may be explained by the limited number of trials reporting this endpoint. Intrathecal morphine is believed to be particularly emetogenic.37 However, there was no evidence to support this view. Similarly, there was no evidence that intrathecal morphine increased the risk of sedation. Finally, there was a statistically significant shortening of the duration of hospital stay of about 0.5 days, although this was probably not clinically relevant.

Our meta-analysis has limitations. First, in only two studies did the group size exceed 30 patients. Small pain studies are likely to find results by random chance35 and they are unlikely to identify rare but clinically relevant adverse effects. Secondly, most treatment effects showed large variability that could not be explained by differences in dose and we were unable to identify other sources of heterogeneity, for instance, trial age or quality. The only identifiable source of heterogeneity was the type of surgery for the outcome ‘24 h morphine consumption’. The lack of consistency in study design and outcome measurement illustrated the lack of a research agenda. Thirdly, our analysis concentrated on patients undergoing major surgery under general anaesthesia and receiving an additional intrathecal injection of morphine without local anaesthetic. Thus, the results may not be applicable to other settings, for instance, patients undergoing knee arthroscopy, varicose vein stripping, or inguinal hernia repair receiving a small dose of opioid as an adjuvant to an intrathecally injected local anaesthetic and without general anaesthetic. Finally, we were unable to demonstrate a linear dose–response neither for beneficial nor harmful effects, but we cannot exclude that a non-linear dose–response exists.

In conclusion, in patients undergoing major surgery under general anaesthesia and receiving systemic opioids for break-through pain after operation, the additional use of intrathecal morphine decreases pain intensity after operation. It also decreases systemic morphine consumption for break-through pain after operation, but does not decrease the risk of morphine-related adverse effects. The extent of the analgesic efficacy is similar to postoperative non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. The postoperative morphine-sparing is significantly weaker in patients undergoing cardio-thoracic compared with abdominal surgery, and the risk of respiratory depression remains finite. Finally, there is a lack of evidence of dose-responsiveness, neither for beneficial nor for harmful effects, and even though a large range of doses has been tested. Despite 30 yr of clinical research, we still do not know the optimal dose of intrathecal morphine when used alone. Different conclusions may be arrived at. The usefulness of intrathecal morphine in patients undergoing cardiothoracic surgery should be questioned. In patients undergoing abdominal surgery, there may be an argument for further research to quantify benefits and risks of very low doses of intrathecal morphine. Clinicians who wish to continue to use intrathecal morphine should consider that the optimal dose (i.e. the dose that has adequate analgesic efficacy without causing life-threatening respiratory depression) remains unknown, as does method and adequate length of monitoring of respiratory function. In view of all these caveats, the most radical, and perhaps most appropriate, conclusion would be that this analgesic intervention that reduces postoperative morphine consumption but not morphine-related adverse effects, that only slightly improves postoperative pain intensity, that significantly increases the risk of pruritus, and that is associated with a finite risk of respiratory depression should be abandoned.

Funding

Dr N.M.'s salary was provided by a Mimosa fund from the Medical Faculty, University of Geneva, Geneva, Switzerland (to M.R.T.). Dr N.E.'s salary was provided by the Evidence Based Critical Care, Anesthesia and Pain Treatment (EBCAP) Institute, Geneva, Switzerland (http://www.hcuge.ch/anesthesie/ebcap.htm).

Acknowledgements

We are grateful to Yesim Ates, MD (Department of Anaesthesiology and Reanimation, Ankara University Medical Faculty, Ankara, Turkey), Marc Beaussier, MD, PhD (Departments of Anaesthesiology and Intensive Care, Digestive Surgery, Clinical Pharmacology, St Antoine Hospital, Paris, France), Francis Bonnet, MD (Department of Anaesthesia and Intensive Care, Tenon Hospital, Paris, France), Polpun Boonmak, MD (Department of Anaesthesiology, Faculty of Medicine, Khon Kaen University, Khon Kaen, Thailand), Jean-Michel Devys, MD (Département d'Anesthésiologie-Réanimation-Urgences, Adolphe De Rothschild Fondation, Paris, France), Marc Fischler, MD (Department of Anaesthesiology, Hôpital Foch, Suresnes, France), Carole Ichai, MD, PhD (Department of Anaesthesiology and Critical Care East and Vascular Surgery, Saint-Roch Hospital, Nice, France), Eric Jacobsohn, MD, FRCPC (Department of Anaesthesiology and Surgery, Washington University School of Medicine, St Louis, MO, USA), Pierre Lena, MD (Institut Arnault Tzanck, Nice, France), Luc Massicotte, MD (Department of Anaesthesiology, Centre Hospitalier de l'Université de Montréal, Hôpital Saint-Luc, Montréal, Québec, Canada), Anchalee Techanivate, MD (Department of Anaesthesia, Faculty of Medicine, Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand), and Gurkan Turker, MD (Department of Anaesthesia and Reanimation, Uludag University Medical School, Gorukle/Bursa, Turkey) who responded to our inquiries. Additional data can be accessed free on the authors’ home page (http://www.hcuge.ch/anesthesie/data.htm).

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Comments

1 Comment
Alternatives to Intrathecal Morphine
20 April 2009
Clinton Z. Kakazu, MD (with Maurice Lippmann MD, Inderjeet Julka, MD)

To the Editor: We read with interest the recent article by Meylam et al(1) dealing with the use of intrathecal morphine during major surgeries under general anesthesia and wish to commend the authors for their review of the literature and meta-analysis.

Although the authors point out the advantages and disadvantages for intrathecal morphine the use of this anesthesia technique still persist throughout the anesthesia community. Given the fact morphine is a mu receptor agonist and can cause respiratory depression post-operatively soon after a surgical procedure, this adverse affect can persist even up to 48 hours later. The technique poses a certain degree of risk as the authors mentioned. Puritis, is another unwanted side effect as well as urinary retention. The author’s summary stated that the use of intrathecal morphine should be abandoned because of the risk posed by respiratory depression and apnea with only a slight improvement in pain relief.

But what are the alternatives? Well, there are other analgesics that anesthesiologist can use intrathecally that do not pose the mu receptor side effects of respiratory depression.

Mixed agonist/antagonist narcotics offer an alternative to morphine. These drugs do not cause puritis, have a ceiling affect on respiration depression, resulting in a safer side-effect profile. For example, butorphanol (2, 3), an agonist/antagonist, offers excellent pain relief that can be used intrathecally. Nalbuphine (4) is another such drug that is safer and has equivalent analgesic potency. While both drugs are devoid of mu receptor affinity, their narcotic kappa receptor affinity offers a safer side effect profile in terms of respiratory depression, yet preserving analgesic effects warrants significant consideration. Another mixed agonist/antagonist narcotic, buprenorphine (5) attaches to the mu receptor (6-8) similar to morphine without kappa receptor activity, has even more powerful analgesic potency compared to morphine, but yet possesses less respiratory adverse side effects as well.

Since clinicians want good outcomes for their patients, the use of intrathecally administered agonist/antagonist drugs should be promulgated rather than pure agonist such as morphine. These mixed agonist/antagonist administered intrathecally offer the primary advantage of excellent analgesic results without major side effects, particularly respiratory depression and apnea.

It is important to note that the aforementioned agonist/antagonist drugs have not been sanctioned by the United States Federal Food and Drug Administration for intrathecal use. Yet, many other narcotics are used intrathecally as “off label” including: fentanyl, sufentanil, and hydromorphone. Another safety consideration of these “off labeled” drugs administered intrathecally are the preservatives added in its preparation which maybe toxic to the CNS.

Sincerely,

Maurice Lippmann, MD, Professor of Anesthesiology Clinton Z. Kakazu, MD, Assistant Professor of Anesthesiology, Director of Regional Anesthesia Inderjeet Julka, MD, Assistant Professor of Anesthesiology, Director of Pain Management

David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, Torrance CA Department of Anesthesiology

References: 1. Meylan N, Elia N, Lysakowski C, Tramer MR: Benefit and risk of intrathecal morphine without local anaesthetic inpatients undergoing major surgery: metaanalysis of randomized trials. BJA 102(2): 156-67,2009. 2. Tsai, SK, Mok MS, Lippmann M: Subarachnoid administration of butorphanol for the relief of post-operative pain. Regional Anesthesia 7(2):73. 3. Tsai SK, Lee TY, Mok MS, Lippmann M: Subarachnoid administration of butorphanol for the relief of postoperative pain. Southeast Asia Journal of Surgery 8(2):212-213. 4. Mok MS, Tsai SK, Chan KH, Lee TY, Lippmann M: Analgesic effect of intrathecal stadol, nubaine, meperidine, morphine, and fentanyl: A comparative study. 8th World Congress, Book of Abstracts Vol II, A213, 1984. 5. Ginsburg RS, Lippmann M: Buprenorphine: A k-receptor agonist? Anesth Analg 72:713-8, 1991. 6. Mather LE, Pharmacology of opiods. Med J Aust 144:424-7, 1986. 7. Boas RA, Villiger JW: Clinical actions of fentanyl and buprenorphine: the significance of receptor binding. Br J Anaesth 57:192-6, 1985. 8. Rance MJ: Multiple opiate receptors – their occurrence and significance. Clin Anaesthesiol 1:183-99, 1983.

Conflict of Interest:

None declared

Submitted on 20/04/2009 8:00 PM GMT