Effects of morphine on respiratory load detection, load magnitude perception, and tactile sensation in obstructive sleep apnea

Rodrigo Tomazini Martins, Jayne C. Carberry, Simon C. Gandevia, Jane E. Butler, Danny J. Eckert

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

7 Citations (Scopus)


Pharyngeal and respiratory sensation is impaired in obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). Opioids may further diminish respiratory sensation. Thus protective pharyngeal neuromuscular and arousal responses to airway occlusion that rely on respiratory sensation could be impaired with opioids to worsen OSA severity. However, little is known about the effects of opioids on upper airway and respiratory sensation in people with OSA. This study was designed to determine the effects of 40 mg of MS-Contin on tactile sensation, respiratory load detection, and respiratory magnitude perception in people with OSA during wakefulness. A double-blind, randomized, crossover design (1 wk washout) was used. Twenty-one men with untreated OSA (apnea/hypopnea index 26 17 events/h) recruited from a larger clinical study completed the protocol. Tactile sensation using von Frey filaments on the back of the hand, internal mucosa of the cheek, uvula, and posterior pharyngeal wall were not different between placebo and morphine [e.g., median (interquartile range) posterior wall 0.16 (0.16, 0.4) vs. 0.4 (0.14, 1.8) g, P 0.261]. Similarly, compared with placebo, morphine did not alter respiratory load detection thresholds for nadir mask pressure detected 2.05 (3.37, 1.55) vs. 2.19 (3.36, 1.41) cmH2O, P 0.767], or respiratory load magnitude perception [mean SD Borg scores during a 5 resistive load (range: 5–126 cmH2O·l1·s1) protocol 4.5 1.6 vs. 4.2 1.2, P 0.347] but did reduce minute ventilation during quiet breathing (11.4 3.3 vs. 10.7 2.6 l/min, P 0.01). These findings indicate that 40 mg of MS-Contin does not systematically impair tactile or respiratory sensation in men with mild to moderate, untreated OSA. This suggests that altered respiratory sensation to acute mechanical stimuli is not likely to be a mechanism that contributes to worsening of OSA with a moderate dose of morphine.

NEW & NOTEWORTHY Forty milligrams of MS-Contin does not alter upper airway tactile sensation, respiratory load detection thresholds, or respiratory load magnitude perception in people with obstructive sleep apnea but does decrease breathing compared with placebo during wakefulness. Despite increasing concerns of harm with opioids, the current findings suggest that impaired respiratory sensation to acute mechanical stimuli with this dose of MS-Contin is unlikely to be a direct mechanism contributing to worsening sleep apnea severity in people with mild-to-moderate disease.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)393-400
Number of pages8
JournalJournal of Applied Physiology
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2018
Externally publishedYes


  • Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA)
  • morphine
  • repiratory load
  • Inspiratory resistive loads
  • Opioids
  • Respiratory physiology
  • Sleep-disordered breathing
  • Respiratory sensation


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