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Opioids are commonly used for pain management, perioperative procedures, and addiction treatment. There is a current opioid epidemic in North America that is paralleled by a marked increase in related deaths. Since 2000, chronic opioid users have been recognized to have significant central sleep apnea (CSA). After heart failure-related Cheyne-Stokes breathing (CSB), opioid-induced CSA is now the second most commonly seen CSA. It occurs in around 24% of chronic opioid users, typically after opioids have been used for more than 2 months, and usually corresponds in magnitude to opioid dose/plasma concentration. Opioid-induced CSA events often mix with episodes of ataxic breathing. The pathophysiology of opioid-induced CSA is based on dysfunction in respiratory rhythm generation and ventilatory chemoreflexes. Opioids have a paradoxical effect on different brain regions, which result in irregular respiratory rhythm. Regarding ventilatory chemoreflexes, chronic opioid use induces hypoxia that appears to stimulate an augmented hypoxic ventilatory response (high loop gain) and cause a narrow CO2 reserve, a combination that promotes respiratory instability. To date, no direct evidence has shown any major clinical consequence from CSA in chronic opioid users. A line of evidence suggested increased morbidity and mortality in overall chronic opioid users. CSA in chronic opioid users is likely to be a compensatory mechanism to avoid opioid injury and is potentially beneficial. The current treatments of CSA in chronic opioid users mainly focus on continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) and adaptive servo-ventilation (ASV) or adding oxygen. ASV is more effective in reducing CSA events than CPAP. However, a recent ASV trial suggested an increased all-cause and cardiovascular mortality with the removal of CSA/CSB in cardiac failure patients. A major reason could be counteracting of a compensatory mechanism. No similar trial has been conducted for chronic opioid-related CSA. Future studies should focus on (1) investigating the phenotypes and genotypes of opioid-induced CSA that may have different clinical outcomes; (2) determining if CSA in chronic opioid users is beneficial or detrimental; and (3) assessing clinical consequences on different treatment options on opioid-induced CSA. Copyright © 2021 International Anesthesia Research Society.


David Wang, Brendon J Yee, Ronald R Grunstein, Frances Chung. Chronic Opioid Use and Central Sleep Apnea, Where Are We Now and Where To Go? A State of the Art Review. Anesthesia and analgesia. 2021 May 01;132(5):1244-1253

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PMID: 33857966

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