Development of opioid tolerance - molecular
mechanisms and clinical consequences

Freye E, Latasch L.
Klinik fur Gefasschirurgie und Nierentransplantation,
Anasthesiol Intensivmed Notfallmed Schmerzther. 2003 Jan;38(1):14-26


INTRODUCTION: One often identified effect of opioid administration is that of the development of tolerance to the analgesic effect. While it is generally agreed that tolerance to opioid analgesia does occur, it does not appear to be a limiting factor. Dose escalation in chronic pain therapy is considered to be predominantly a consequence of increasing pain, which is a result of increasing nociceptive input as the disease progresses. The underlying cause of tolerance to opioids, however, as commonly identified in the ICU can be identified as an adaptation process. When the opioid is given continuously several causes of adaptation can be identified, all of which can be traced back to the cellular and molecular level. RECEPTOR RELATED CHANGES INVOLVED IN TOLERANCE: Initial effects of opioid administration in most individuals are analgesia, sedation, nausea/vomiting, respiratory depression, pupillary constriction, constipation and euphoria or dysphoria. However, numerous studies and clinical experience suggest that tolerance to different opioid effects develop at different rates, which has been termed selective tolerance. While tolerance to nausea, vomiting, sedation, euphoria and respiratory depression occur rapidly, there is minimal development of tolerance to constipation and miosis. Such diversity suggest receptor-related differences in the speed of development of tolerance. In the ICU other compounds such as benzodiazepines, when given together with opioids, seem to speed up the rate of development of tolerance of the latter. Such an effect very likely is due to a reduction in activity of the descending inhibitory nervous system. In addition, there is surmountable data suggesting that the higher the intrinsic activity of the opioid at only one receptor site, lesser receptors are needed in order to induce a potent analgesic effect. As a net result the incidence of tolerance is less likely to become clinically apparent when potent ligands such as fentanyl or sufentanil are administered. N-METHYL-D-ASPARTATE (NMDA) ACTIVATION, OPIOID RECEPTOR INTERNALIZATION AND DESENSITIZATION: An altered metabolism has little effect on the rate of development of tolerance. In chronic pain treatment with morphine, however, an increased ratio of the metabolite morphine-3-glucuronide, with antiopioid effects, to morphine-6-glucuronide is associated with staggering doses of the analgesic. Opioids which interact with micro - and/or kappa-binding sites, demonstrate an adaptation process called desensitization which is due to a reduced interaction with the internal second messenger system called G-protein. This is only a short-lived phenomenon following binding of the ligand. Another underlying mechanism of tolerance development is that of internalization of the opioid receptors. This short-lived phenomenon, termed endocytosis, results in lesser binding sites available for the mediation of analgesia. Another and more relevant mechanism of long-term opioid binding is that of subsequent protein kinase C (PKC), phospholipase C (PLC) translocation and activation of nitric oxide synthetase (NOS). All of this contributes to a N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptor activation with ensuing antiopioid effect and tolerance. CLINICAL CONSEQUENCES FOLLOWING THE DEVELOPMENT OF TOLERANCE: Most likely genetic difference in opioid receptor synthesis and difference in their affinities for various ligands is the cause for the wide margin of dose variability in patients (genetic polymorphism). Once tolerance to the analgesic effect of the opioid is observed and in order to avoid unnecessary further development of tolerance, simultaneous administration of other receptor mediated analgesics is advocated. In the perioperative period strategies like the multimodal analgesic concept is fostered. It consists of the simultaneous administration of low-dose ketamine, co-administration of an alpha 2-agonist, and the administration of a selective COX-2 inhibitor (refecoxib, parecoxib) respectively. In chronic pain therapy combined administration with either dextromethorpharphane, or opioid rotation of a more potent ligand such as methadone, fentanyl TTS or oxycodone is suggested. Since conversion factors are not reliable in opioid rotation, it is best to start off with 50 % of the equivalent dose and rapidly titrate to the desired effect. With regard to tolerance development in the ICU, co-administration of an alpha 2-agonist (clonidine, dexmedetomidine), and daily intermittent cessation of benzodiazepine administration are advocated. Since continuous dosing of an opioid, commonly handled in the ICU setting is more likely to induce tolerance, intermittent administration is advocated. Taken together, there is an abundance of experimental data which suggests, that with every dose of an opioid several adaptive processes are being initiated. Due to genetic polymorphism such adaptation is seen clinically with striking individual different dosages, the degree and the time of onset of tolerance. Although tolerance development may result in staggering doses of an opioid, there is no reason to evade the use of such agents. On the contrary, the concept of multimodal analgesia consisting of the simultaneous use of analgesics with a different mode of action can counteract tolerance development.
G protein
Receptor regulation
Glycine anatagonists
Fentanyl and ketamine
Tolerance, sensitization and dependence
Anxiety, opioids, cholecystokinin and tolerance
Opioid agonists plus ultra-low-dose antagonists attenuate tolerance

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