Sex-specific responses to opiates: animal and human studies

Anesth Analg. 2008 Jul;107(1):83-95. doi: 10.1213/ane.0b013e31816a66a4.


It is widely reported that analgesic drugs acting at mu, kappa, and delta opioid-receptors display quantitative and qualitative differences in effect in males and females. These sex-related differences are not restricted to the analgesic/antinociceptive properties of opioids, but are also present in opioid-induced side effects, such as changes in respiration, locomotor activity, learning/memory, addiction, and changes in the cardiovascular system. An increasing number of well-controlled animal and human studies directly examining the issue of sex in the potency of opioids show that, although sex may affect opioid analgesia, the direction and magnitude of sex differences depend on many interacting variables. These include those specific to the drug itself, such as dose, pharmacology, and route and time of administration, and those particular to the subject, such as species, type of pain, genetics, age, and gonadal/hormonal status. In the current review, we systematically present these animal and human studies and discuss the data in relation to the depending variables. Although the observed sex differences in opioid effect may be clinically relevant, lack of knowledge on other factors involved in the large variability in patient opioid analgesic sensitivity should compel practitioners to customize their dosing regimens based on individual requirements.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Analgesics, Opioid / pharmacology*
  • Animals
  • Drug Tolerance
  • Female
  • Gonadal Steroid Hormones / physiology
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mice
  • Rats
  • Receptors, Opioid / agonists
  • Receptors, Opioid, delta / agonists
  • Receptors, Opioid, kappa / agonists
  • Receptors, Opioid, mu / agonists
  • Sex Characteristics


  • Analgesics, Opioid
  • Gonadal Steroid Hormones
  • Receptors, Opioid
  • Receptors, Opioid, delta
  • Receptors, Opioid, kappa
  • Receptors, Opioid, mu
  • nociceptin receptor