Benefit-risk assessment of transdermal fentanyl
for the treatment of chronic pain

Kornick CA, Santiago-Palma J,
Moryl N, Payne R, Obbens EA.
Department of Neurology,
Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center,
Pain and Palliative Care Service,
New York, New York, USA.
Drug Saf. 2003;26(13):951-73


Transdermal fentanyl is effective and well tolerated for the treatment of chronic pain caused by malignancy and non-malignant conditions when administered according to the manufacturer's recommendations. Compared with oral opioids, the advantages of transdermal fentanyl include a lower incidence and impact of adverse effects (constipation, nausea and vomiting, and daytime drowsiness), a higher degree of patient satisfaction, improved quality of life, improved convenience and compliance resulting from administration every 72 hours, and decreased use of rescue medication. Transdermal fentanyl is a useful analgesic for cancer patients who are unable to swallow or have gastrointestinal problems. Transdermal fentanyl forms a depot within the upper skin layers before entering the microcirculation. Therapeutic blood levels are attained 12-16 hours after patch application and decrease slowly with a half-life of 16-22 hours following removal. Patients with chronic pain should be titrated to adequate relief with short-acting oral or parenteral opioids prior to the initiation of transdermal fentanyl in order to prevent exacerbations of pain or opioid-related adverse effects. Transdermal fentanyl can then be initiated based on the 24-hour opioid requirement once adequate analgesia has been achieved.The prolonged elimination of transdermal fentanyl can become problematic if patients develop opioid-related adverse effects, especially hypoventilation. Adverse effects do not improve immediately after patch removal and may take many hours to resolve. Patients who experience opioid-related toxicity associated with respiratory depression should be treated immediately with an opioid antagonist such as naloxone and closely monitored for at least 24 hours. Because of the short half-life of naloxone, sequential doses or a continuous infusion of the opioid antagonist may be necessary. Transdermal fentanyl should be administered cautiously to patients with pre-existing conditions such as emphysema that may predispose them to the development of hypoventilation.Transdermal fentanyl is indicated only for patients who require continuous opioid administration for the treatment of chronic pain that cannot be managed with other medications. It is contraindicated in the management of acute and postoperative pain, as pain may decrease more rapidly in these circumstances than fentanyl blood levels can be adjusted, leading to the development of life-threatening hypoventilation.Cognitive and physical impairments such as confusion and abnormal co-ordination can occur with transdermal fentanyl. Therefore, patients should be instructed to refrain from driving or operating machinery immediately following the initiation of transdermal fentanyl, or after any dosage increase. Patients may resume such activities once the absence of these potential adverse effects is documented.
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