Lidocaine-like sodium channel blocking drugs provide pain relief either by interrupting impulse conduction in neurons when applied locally in high concentrations or, when given systemically, by suppressing high-frequency ectopic discharges due to preferential drug binding to inactivated channel states. Lidocaine-like actions of opioids have frequently been demonstrated clinically. However, drug binding to resting and inactivated channel conformations has been studied systematically only in the case of meperidine. The aim of this in vitro study was to investigate the effects of four currently used opioids on heterologously expressed neuronal (NaV(1.2)) voltage-gated sodium channels. Block of sodium currents was studied at hyperpolarized holding potentials and at depolarized potentials inducing either fast- or slow-inactivation. Sufentanil, fentanyl and tramadol but not morphine reversibly suppressed sodium inward currents at high concentrations (half-maximum blocking concentrations (IC50) 49+/-4, 141+/-6 and 103+/-8 microM) when depolarizations were started from hyperpolarized holding potentials. Short depolarizations inducing fast-inactivation and long prepulses inducing slow-inactivation significantly (*p < or = 0.001) increased the blocking potency for these opioids. 15% slow inactivated channels reduced the respective IC50 values to 5+/-3, 12+/-2 and 21+/-2 microM. These results show that: (1) Sufentanil, fentanyl and tramadol block voltage-gated sodium channels with half-maximum inhibitory concentrations similar to the IC50 reported for meperidine. (2) Slow inactivation--a physiological mechanism to suppress ectopic activity in response to slow shifts in membrane potential--increases binding affinity for sufentanil, fentanyl and tramadol. (3) Morphine has no such effects.