Neuraxial Opioid-Induced Itch and Its Pharmacological Antagonism

  • Mei-Chuan Ko
Part of the Handbook of Experimental Pharmacology book series (HEP, volume 226)


Given its profound analgesic nature, neuraxial opioids are frequently used for pain management. Unfortunately, the high incident rate of itch/pruritus after spinal administration of opioid analgesics reported in postoperative and obstetric patients greatly diminishes patient satisfaction and thus the value of the analgesics. Many endeavors to solve the mystery behind neuraxial opioid-induced itch had not been successful, as the pharmacological antagonism other than the blockade of mu opioid receptors remains elusive. Nevertheless, as the characteristics of all opioid receptor subtypes have become more understood, more studies have shed light on the potential effective treatments. This review discusses the mechanisms underlying neuraxial opioid-induced itch and compares pharmacological evidence in nonhuman primates with clinical findings across diverse drugs. Both nonhuman primate and human studies corroborate that mixed mu/kappa opioid partial agonists seem to be the most effective drugs in ameliorating neuraxial opioid-induced itch while retaining neuraxial opioid-induced analgesia.


Agonist Analgesics Antagonist Antipruritics Epidural Intrathecal Itch Monkey Mouse Opioid receptor Pain Pruritus Rat Spinal cord 



Delta opioid receptor


Gastrin-releasing peptide receptor


Kappa opioid receptor


Mu opioid receptor


Nociceptin/orphanin FQ peptide receptor



Funding from the National Institutes of Health in the United States (DA-013685, AR-059193, and AR-064456) to support the research of neuraxial opioid-induced itch is gratefully acknowledged.


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© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Physiology and PharmacologyWake Forest University School of MedicineWinston-SalemUSA

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