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Summary

As a result of the undesired action of opioids on the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, patients receiving opioid medication for chronic pain often experience opioid-induced bowel dysfunction (OBD), the most common and debilitating symptom of which is constipation. Based on clinical experience and a comprehensive MEDLINE literature review, this paper provides the primary care physician with an overview of the prevalence, pathophysiology and burden of OBD. Patients with OBD suffer from a wide range of symptoms including constipation, decreased gastric emptying, abdominal cramping, spasm, bloating, delayed GI transit and the formation of hard dry stools. OBD can have a serious negative impact on quality of life (QoL) and the daily activities that patients feel able to perform. To relieve constipation associated with OBD, patients often use laxatives chronically (associated with risks) or alter/abandon their opioid medication, potentially sacrificing analgesia. Physicians should have greater appreciation of the prevalence, symptoms and burden of OBD. In light of the serious negative impact OBD can have on QoL, physicians should encourage dialogue with patients to facilitate optimal symptomatic management of the condition. There is a pressing need for new therapies that act upon the underlying mechanisms of OBD.