Assessment of the potency and intrinsic activity of systemic versus intrathecal opioids in rats

Anesthesiology. 1997 Jul;87(1):127-34; discussion 27A-29A. doi: 10.1097/00000542-199707000-00017.


Background: One measure of an opioid's efficacy is its ability to retain its analgesic effect as the intensity of a noxious stimulus is increased. A few studies have assessed the ability of either spinal or systemic opioids to produce analgesia using low- and high-intensity stimulation. There are little data available to show whether there are differences in efficacy between systemic and intrathecal opioid administration. The purpose of this study was to assess the relative efficacy of several clinically useful opioids systemically and spinally and to determine whether intrathecal administration resulted in greater efficacy than systemic administration.

Methods: Groups of rats were administered multiple doses of meperidine, morphine, hydromorphone, fentanyl, sufentanil, or buprenorphine either subcutaneously or intrathecally via implanted catheters. Noxious radiant heat was applied sequentially to each hindpaw, one at low intensity (adjusted to a mean withdrawal latency of 10 s) and one at high intensity (adjusted to a mean withdrawal latency of 5 s). Paw withdrawal latencies were recorded; dose-response curves for each intensity and each route of administration were graphically recorded, and ED50s were calculated. Ratios of high-to low-stimulus intensity ED50s were calculated for both routes of administration for each drug, and the ratios of subcutaneous-to-intrathecal ED50s for low-intensity stimulation were calculated to assess the relative systemic versus spinal potencies for each drug.

Results: The ratios of the high-to-low intensity ED50s were meperidine, 11.8, morphine, 6.1, hydromorphone, 2.6, fentanyl, 2.3, sufentanil, 1.8, and buprenorphine, 24.0. For intrathecal administration, there was uniformity of the high- to low-intensity ED50 ratios for the agonist drugs (meperidine, 2.1; morphine, 2.1; hydromorphone, 1.9; fentanyl, 1.8; sufentanil, 1.6). For morphine and hydromorphone, the systemic ED50 doses were several hundred times the intrathecal ED50s whereas the systemic-to-spinal ED50 ratios for the other drugs were 20 or less.

Conclusions: As intensity of noxious stimulation is increased, the more potent opioid agonists, administered systemically, produce antinociception with lesser increases in dose compared with lower potency drugs such as meperidine or morphine. When given spinally all opioid agonists tested, including morphine and meperidine, demonstrated good efficacy, as measured by their ability to provide antinociception for high versus low intensity stimulation.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Administration, Cutaneous
  • Anesthesia*
  • Animals
  • Dose-Response Relationship, Drug
  • Injections, Spinal
  • Male
  • Narcotics / administration & dosage*
  • Rats
  • Rats, Sprague-Dawley


  • Narcotics