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A systematic review of the use of opioids in the management of dyspnoea
  1. A-L Jennings1,
  2. A N Davies2,
  3. J P T Higgins3,
  4. J S R Gibbs4,
  5. K E Broadley5
  1. 1Department of Palliative Medicine, The North London Hospice and Barnet and Chase Farm Hospitals NHS Trust, London N12 8TF, UK
  2. 2Department of Palliative Medicine, Bristol Haematology and Oncology Centre, Bristol BS2 8ED, UK
  3. 3MRC Biostatistics Unit, Institute of Public Health, Cambridge CB2 2SR, UK
  4. 4National Heart and Lung Institute, Hammersmith Hospital, London W10 0HS, UK
  5. 5Department of Palliative Medicine, Royal Marsden Hospital, London SW3 6JJ, UK
  1. Correspondence to:
    Dr A-L Jennings, Consultant in Palliative Medicine, The North London Hospice and Barnet and Chase Farm Hospitals NHS Trust, Woodside Avenue, London N12 8TF, UK;


Background: Opioids are commonly used to treat dyspnoea in palliative medicine but there has been no formal evaluation of the evidence for their effectiveness in the treatment of dyspnoea. A systematic review was therefore carried out to examine this.

Methods: The criteria for inclusion required that studies were double blind, randomised, placebo controlled trials of opioids for the treatment of dyspnoea secondary to any cause. The methods used to identify suitable studies included electronic searching of the literature, hand searching of the literature, and personal contact with relevant individuals and organisations. Random effects meta-analyses were performed on all included studies and on various subgroups (studies involving nebulised opioids or patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)). Subgroups were compared using meta-regression. Some studies included in the systematic review could not be included in the meta-analysis because insufficient data were presented.

Results: Eighteen studies fulfilled the criteria for the review. The meta-analysis showed a statistically significant positive effect of opioids on the sensation of breathlessness (p=0.0008). Meta-regression indicated a greater effect for studies using oral or parenteral opioids than for studies using nebulised opioids (p=0.02). The subgroup analysis failed to show a positive effect of nebulised opioids on the sensation of breathlessness. The results of the subgroup analysis of the COPD studies were essentially similar to the results of the main analysis.

Conclusion: This review supports the continued use of oral and parenteral opioids to treat dyspnoea in patients with advanced disease. There are insufficient data from the meta-analysis to conclude whether nebulised opioids are effective, but the results from included studies that did not contribute to the meta-analysis suggest that they are no better than nebulised normal saline.

  • dyspnoea
  • opioids
  • palliation
  • meta-analysis

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  • This paper is based on a Cochrane review published in The Cochrane Library 2002, Issue 1 (see for information). Cochrane reviews are regularly updated as new evidence emerges and in response to comments and criticisms from readers. The Cochrane Library should be consulted for the most recent version of the review.