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Taking the Fear Out of Morphine

Maite Hernandez, VITAS Representative, discusses the myths surrounding morphine and hospice care.

Hospice and Morphine

Like the word hospice, the word morphine is frightening—until you learn more about it.

“Truly,” says Maite Hernandez, RN, a representative for VITAS Healthcare in Florida, “morphine is a medication that is given even in the acute care setting in the hospital.”

Morphine is the mainstay of pain relief associated with anything from childbirth to advanced cancer, whether the patient can expect a full recovery or is receiving hospice services.

But patients and caregivers who hear the word “morphine” sometimes fear that their physician has given up, that they or someone they love will be heavily sedated and left to die. And physicians who do not—in the normal course of their practice—routinely prescribe advanced pain medications can be leery of prescribing morphine.

Hospice and palliative care physicians, however, have both the expertise and experience in opiates to control their patients’ pain quickly using as little medication as possible. They then “titrate,” monitoring each patient’s dosage and symptoms to reach the right level of pain control with the fewest side effects for that patient.

No One Needs to Live in Pain

No one at any stage of life should live in pain. Almost all pain can be alleviated with medications. With pain reduced to a tolerable level, the person can eat and sleep, be mentally alert and maintain a level of independence, dignity and self-care. Bottom line: morphine can improve quality of life.

“Opiates,” which can be taken by mouth or intravenously, include morphine, codeine, hydrocodone, oxycodone, hydromorphone, etc. Opiates are derived in nature from opium poppies. “Opioids” are manufactured drugs that have the same effect as the natural opiates. Both kinds of medications are strong, safe and effective painkillers when prescribed and used appropriately.

Things to Know

There are some valid concerns about taking morphine that can be addressed quickly and directly:

Sleepiness and lethargy: Morphine can cause some sedation initially, but this effect decreases within a few days. By easing pain and making breathing easier, opiates allow the patient to finally get some much-needed sleep. Once the patient is feeling more comfortable and rested, interest in normal life activities often increases.

Nausea: Nausea may initially occur but tends to wear off after a few days of taking morphine. In the meantime, nausea can be treated with a limited amount of additional medication. 

Constipation: Constipation should be expected with morphine and other opiates/opioids, and treated aggressively to ensure patient comfort.

Less effective over time: Tolerance is possible but not often a problem when morphine is used to control pain. It is more likely that the disease has worsened over time, and that results in increased pain. The hospice physician can increase dosage if and when pain increases. Physicians generally start with low doses of morphine; if the pain increases, the dose can be increased. 

Addiction: Addiction is rare (less than 1%) in patients taking morphine for pain. However, it is true that after two weeks or more of taking morphine, it should not be halted abruptly. The body needs to be weaned off opiates so it can adjust, which is normal human physiology and not addiction.

If you or someone you love has a condition that causes acute or chronic pain and over-the-counter drugs like acetaminophen or ibuprofen are not effective, talk to your doctor about prescribing an opiate.

“One of the beautiful things that hospice can do is provide 24-hour care in the home when there's an acute symptom to manage,” says Maite. “So if a patient is started on morphine because there's an acute symptom such as pain or respiratory distress, there will be a nurse there to monitor that.”

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