The decision process preceding prescribing analgesics is complex and the physician is often struggling to balance several disparate considerations in order to work out what is rational. Several factors--medical, intellectual, emotional and logistic--influence the decision whether or not to prescribe, and the decision itself influences how the physicians feel about themselves. In this study the 'critical incident technique' was used for exploring the qualities of dilemmas among general physicians prior to prescribing analgesics to patients in primary health care. The study displayed two main types of problems in connection with prescription of opioids. The first main problem was a concern about abuse and addiction with no proper indication for the drug. The second main type of problem was related to the appropriateness of the drug, although the indication as such might be correct, i.e. acute or chronic pain. An important consequence of the dilemmas experienced influenced the physicians' self-esteem negatively, including failures in the patient-physician relationship. This results in emotional strain and is often experienced as a personal defeat. Only a few physicians denied prescription despite the experience of a dilemma, which might indicate an ambivalence or lack of knowledge among physicians with regard to proper indications for opioid prescription. However, it may also suggest that physicians need more training in saying no, or skills in deciding proper indications for opioids, which needs to be addressed during educational programmes.