AssessmentsOpioid agonists, mixed agonist-antagonists and partial agonists
Opioid agonists, mixed agonist-antagonists and partial agonists
USMLE® Step 1 style questions USMLE
USMLE® Step 2 style questions USMLE
A 65-year-old man is undergoing a right knee replacement, and anesthesia is induced with large dose of fentanyl and propofol. He begins to have respiratory decompensation, and bag and mask ventilation is attempted but is unsuccessful. Despite repositioning his head and jaw as well as forcefully attempting to ventilate the patient, there is no rise of his chest wall and his pulse oximetry continues to fall. Attempts to open his mouth to insert a LMA become exceedingly difficult because his jaw muscles are tightly clenched. What is the most likely etiology of this anesthetic complication?
Content Reviewers:Yifan Xiao, MD
Opioid agonists are medications used mainly to control acute or chronic pain in particular situations.
Some of them are also used to treat diarrhea and cough. When treating pain, the goal should be to use short-acting opioids at the lowest effective dose for just a few days, and slowly increase their dose only as needed.
To understand how opioids work, let’s zoom into a region of the brain tissue that has opioid receptors.
Normally, in the absence of endorphins, inhibitory neurons secrete a neurotransmitter called gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABA, that prevents nearby neurons from releasing neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine.
Now, let’s say someone goes to play a rigorous game of badminton. Exercise releases endorphins which activate the three major opioid receptors located on the inhibitory neurons, called the mu, kappa, and delta receptors.
As endorphins bind to these receptors, they block the inhibitory neuron from releasing GABA, allowing the dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine secreting neurons to freely unload their neurotransmitters, which then get picked up by another neuron in the same area.
Okay, so even though all opioids bind to opioid receptors, not all of them have the same effect.
These are called full agonists. Others, like tramadol, have a weaker effect since they only partially inhibit GABA release.
These opioids are called partial agonists.
Now, some opioids act preferably on mu receptors, others on kappa or delta receptors.
In fact, they can have an agonist effect on one receptor, and an antagonist effect on others.
These are called mixed agonist-antagonists.
First, let’s look at some full agonists.
Although not a medication, heroin is also a full agonist.
Since opioids are the strongest analgesics available, they can typically be given perorally, intravenously, or through patches in the case of fentanyl, to control severe pain that couldn’t be eased with non-opioid medications.
Fentanyl is the most potent full agonist and it’s also used as an anesthetic medication due to its rapid onset and short duration of action.
Since they cause a wonderful euphoric feeling, there’s an increased risk of abuse and addiction.
An added benefit is that it also blocks the euphoric feeling that comes from taking other opioids, so it helps to prevent future abuse.
The first three are mixed agonist-antagonists. Buprenorphine is a partial agonist at the mu receptor, but an antagonist at the kappa receptor, while butorphanol is a partial agonist at the kappa receptor, but an antagonist at the mu receptor.
Now if these medications are given with a full agonist, they’ll compete for the same receptors and decrease the overall effect.
However, it’s not potent enough to cause an overdose or trigger the euphoric feeling, which makes it a safer alternative to methadone.
Okay, let’s move on to side effects. In the central nervous system, excessive stimulation of opioid receptors can cause euphoria, but sometimes also dysphoria where the person feels unhappy and dissatisfied.
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