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The respiratory effects of two postoperative analgesic regimens were compared in two groups of 16 patients each, recovering from general anesthesia and major surgery. One group received a pain-relieving dose of iv morphine (mean, 18.1 mg), with the same dose repeated as a continuous intravenous infusion over the subsequent 24 h. The other group received regional anesthesia using bupivacaine. The patients were monitored for 16 h after surgery. The two analgesic regimens provided patients with comparable analgesia throughout the study period, but there were quite different respiratory effects in the two groups. Ten patients receiving morphine infusions had a total of 456 episodes of pronounced oxygen desaturation (SaO2 < 80%). These occurred only while the patients were asleep, and all were associated with disturbances in ventilatory pattern, namely, obstructive apnea (144 episodes in eight patients), paradoxic breathing (275 episodes in six patients), and period of slow ventilatory rate (37 episodes in one patient). In contrast, in patients receiving regional anesthesia, oxygen saturation never decreased below 87%. Central apnea, obstructive apnea, and paradoxic breathing occurred more frequently in patients in the morphine group (12, 10, and 10 patients, respectively) than patients in the regional anesthesia group (4, 3, and 5 patients, respectively). The interaction of sleep and morphine analgesia produced disturbances in ventilatory pattern, causing profound oxygen destruction. These results suggest that postoperative pain relief using regional anaesthesia has a greater margin of safety in terms of respiratory side effects than does the continuous administration of opiates.