Seventy-five patients (n = 75) undergoing elective cesarean delivery during epidural anesthesia were randomly assigned to receive one of three opioid analgesics via patient-controlled analgesia (PCA) when they first complained of pain in the recovery room. Following administration of an analgesic loading dose, patients were allowed to self-administer morphine 1.8 mg, meperidine 18 mg, or oxymorphone 0.3 mg iv every 8 min as required. Data collected during the 24-h observation period included visual analog scale (VAS) pain scores at rest and during movement, VAS patient satisfaction scores, total drug administered, the ratio of attempts/injections, and the incidence of nausea/vomiting, sedation, and pruritus. After adjusting for narcotic potency, no differences in 24-h dose requirements were noted between treatment groups (NS). All patients achieved an excellent level of analgesia at rest (NS); however, onset was most rapid with oxymorphone (P less than 0.05). The percentage of patients reporting severe pain during movement was highest in the meperidine group (P less than 0.05). Oxymorphone was associated with the highest incidence of nausea and vomiting (P less than 0.05), whereas increased sedation and pruritus were noted with morphine. Patient satisfaction with drug effect demonstrated significant negative correlations with resting pain scores and degree of sedation. Whereas morphine is a more commonly utilized PCA analgesic, the excellent analgesia, low incidence of sedation, and high patient satisfaction provided by meperidine and oxymorphone suggested useful alternatives.