A number of studies have reported the analgesic effect of morphine when applied topically to painful skin ulcers. It has been suggested that morphine may exert a local action, as opioid receptors have been demonstrated on peripheral nerve terminals. In this study, we investigated the bioavailability of topically applied morphine to cutaneous ulcers. Six hospice inpatients with skin ulcers were given morphine sulfate 10 mg in Intrasite gel topically and morphine sulfate 10 mg subcutaneously over 4 hours, at least 48 hours apart, in randomized order. Morphine, morphine-6-glucuronide (M6G), and morphine-3-glucuronide (M3G) were determined in plasma using a specific HPLC method. In five patients morphine and its metabolites were undetectable when applied topically. In one patient (with the largest ulcer), morphine and M6G were detected. The calculated morphine and M6G bioavailability in this patient were 20% and 21%, respectively. M3G was also detected but was below the lower limit of quantitation. When applied topically to ulcers, morphine was not absorbed in the majority of patients, suggesting any analgesic effect would be mediated locally rather than systemically. However, in ulcers with a large surface area, systemic absorption may occur.