Clinical implications of opioid-induced ventilatory impairment

Anaesth Intensive Care. 2022 Mar;50(1-2):52-67. doi: 10.1177/0310057X211070292. Epub 2022 Feb 21.


Opioid-induced ventilatory impairment is the primary mechanism of harm from opioid use. Opioids suppress the activity of the central respiratory centres and are sedating, leading to impairment of alveolar ventilation.Respiratory physiological changes induced with acute opioid use include depression of the hypercapnic ventilatory response and hypoxic ventilatory response. In chronic opioid use a compensatory increase in hypoxic ventilatory response maintains ventilation and contributes to the onset of sleep-disordered breathing patterns of central sleep apnoea and ataxic breathing. Supplemental oxygen use in those at risk of opioid-induced ventilatory impairment requires careful consideration by the clinician to prevent failure to detect hypoventilation, if oximetry is being relied on, and the overriding of hypoxic ventilatory drive. Obstructive sleep apnoea and opioid-induced ventilatory impairment are frequently associated, with this interrelationship being complex and often unpredictable. Monitoring the patient for opioid-induced ventilatory impairment poses challenges in the areas of reliability, avoidance of alarm fatigue, cost, and personnel demands. Many situations remain in which patients cannot be provided effective analgesia without opioids, and for these the clinician requires a comprehensive knowledge of opioid-induced ventilatory impairment.

Keywords: Opioids, ventilatory impairment, hypoxaemia, obstructive sleep apnoea, pain, anaesthesia.

MeSH terms

  • Analgesics, Opioid* / adverse effects
  • Humans
  • Hypoxia / chemically induced
  • Reproducibility of Results
  • Respiration
  • Sleep Apnea, Obstructive*


  • Analgesics, Opioid