Preclinical Pharmacology and Opioid Combinations

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Although effective alone, opioids are often used in combination with other drugs for relief of moderate to severe pain. Guidelines for acute perioperative pain recommend the use of multimodal therapy for pain management, although combinations of opioids are not specifically recommended. Mu opioid drugs include morphine, heroin, fentanyl, methadone, and morphine 6β-glucuronide (M6G). Their mechanism of action is complex, resulting in subtle pharmacological differences among them and with unpredictable differences in their potency, effectiveness, and tolerability among patients. Highly selective mu opioids do not bind to a single receptor. Rather, they interact with a large number of mu receptor subtypes with different activation profiles for the various drugs. Thus, mu-receptor-based drugs are not all the same and it may be possible to utilize these differences for enhanced pain control in a clinical setting. These differences among the drugs raise the question of whether combinations might result in better pain relief with fewer side effects. This concept has already been demonstrated between two mu opioids in preclinical studies and clinical trials on other combinations are ongoing. This article reviews the current state of knowledge about mu opioid receptor pharmacology, summarizes preclinical evidence for synergy from opioid combinations, and highlights the complex nature of the mu opioid receptor pharmacology.

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