Opioid-induced bowel dysfunction: pathophysiology and potential new therapies

Drugs. 2003;63(7):649-71. doi: 10.2165/00003495-200363070-00003.


Opioid treatment for postoperative or chronic pain is frequently associated with adverse effects, the most common being dose-limiting and debilitating bowel dysfunction. Postoperative ileus, although attributable to surgical procedures, is often exacerbated by opioid use during and following surgery. Postoperative ileus is marked by increased inhibitory neural input, heightened inflammatory responses, decreased propulsive movements and increased fluid absorption in the gastrointestinal tract. The use of opioids for chronic pain is characterised by a constellation of symptoms including hard dry stools, straining, incomplete evacuation, bloating, abdominal distension and increased gastroesophageal reflux. The current management of opioid-induced bowel dysfunction among patients receiving opioid analgesics consists primarily of nonspecific ameliorative measures. Intensive investigations into the mode of action of opioids have characterised three opioid receptor classes -mu, delta and kappa- that mediate the myriad of peripheral and central actions of opioids. Activation of mu-opioid receptors in the gastrointestinal tract is responsible for inhibition of gut motility, whereas receptors in the central nervous system mediate the analgesic actions of opioids. Blocking peripheral opioid receptors in the gut is therefore a logical therapeutic target for managing opioid-induced bowel dysfunction. Available opioid antagonists such as naloxone are of limited use because they are readily absorbed, cross the blood-brain barrier, and act at central opioid receptors to reverse analgesia and elicit opioid withdrawal. Methylnaltrexone and alvimopan are recently developed opioid antagonists with activity that is restricted to peripheral receptors. Both have recently shown the ability to reverse opioid-induced bowel dysfunction without reversing analgesia or precipitating central nervous system withdrawal signs in non-surgical patients receiving opioids for chronic pain. In addition, recent clinical studies with alvimopan suggest that it may normalise bowel function without blocking opioid analgesia in abdominal laparotomy patients with opioid-related postoperative ileus.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Constipation / drug therapy*
  • Constipation / etiology*
  • Digestive System / innervation
  • Gastrointestinal Motility / drug effects*
  • Gastrointestinal Transit
  • Humans
  • Intestinal Obstruction / drug therapy*
  • Intestinal Obstruction / etiology*
  • Naltrexone / analogs & derivatives*
  • Naltrexone / pharmacology
  • Narcotic Antagonists / pharmacology
  • Narcotics / adverse effects*
  • Postoperative Complications / chemically induced*
  • Quaternary Ammonium Compounds
  • Receptors, Opioid / physiology
  • Water-Electrolyte Balance


  • Narcotic Antagonists
  • Narcotics
  • Quaternary Ammonium Compounds
  • Receptors, Opioid
  • methylnaltrexone
  • Naltrexone