The net clinical benefit of opioids for chronic breathlessness has been challenged by recent randomized clinical trials. The purpose was to review and weigh the evidence for and against opioid treatment for chronic breathlessness in people with serious disease.
Evidence to date on the efficacy and safety of opioids for chronic breathlessness was reviewed. Findings supporting a benefit from opioids in meta-analyses of earlier, mostly smaller trials were not confirmed by recent larger trials. Evidence pertains mostly to people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease but also to people with pulmonary fibrosis, heart failure, and advanced cancer. Taken together, there is no consistent evidence to generally recommend opioids for severe breathlessness or to identify people who are more likely to benefit. Opioid treatment may be tested in patients with intractable breathlessness and limited other treatment options, such as in end-of-life care. Knowledge gaps were identified and recommendations were made for future research.
Key PointsSupportive findings of net benefit of opioids for chronic breathlessness in earlier trials have not been confirmed by recent larger randomized clinical trials.There is no evidence that the opioid treatment improves the person’s exercise capacity or quality of life, and it increases the risk of adverse events.Evidence to date does not support that opioids should generally be recommended for treating breathlessness.In people with intractable symptoms and short expected survival, with few or no treatment options, it may still be reasonable to try opioid treatment with the aim to alleviate severe breathlessness.Research is needed to explore the potential benefit of opioids in selected patient groups.Opioids cannot be generally recommended for treating breathlessness based on insufficient evidence for net clinical benefit.