Opioids: A Review of Pharmacokinetics and Pharmacodynamics in Neonates, Infants, and Children

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Pain management in the pediatric population is complex for many reasons. Mild pain is usually managed quite well with oral acetaminophen or ibuprofen. Situations involving more severe pain often require the use of an opioid, which may be administered by many different routes, depending on clinical necessity. Acute and chronic disease states, as well as the constantly changing maturational process, produce unique challenges at every level of pediatrics in dosing and management of all medications, especially with regard to high-risk opioids. Although there has been significant progress in the understanding of opioid pharmacokinetics and pharmacodynamics in neonates, infants, children, and adolescents, somewhat limited data exist from which necessary information, concerning the safe and effective use of these agents, may be drawn. The evidence here provided is intended to be helpful in directing the practitioner to patient-specific reasons for preferring one opioid over another. As our knowledge of opioids and their effects has grown, it has become clear that older medications like codeine and meperidine (pethidine) have very limited use in pediatrics. This review provides pharmacokinetic and pharmacodynamic evidence on the currently available opioids: morphine, fentanyl (and derivatives), codeine, meperidine, oxycodone, hydrocodone, hydromorphone, methadone, buprenorphine, butorphanol, nalbuphine, pentazocin, ketobemidone, tramadol, piritramide, naloxone and naltrexone. Morphine, being the most studied opioid analgesic, is the standard against which all others are compared. Pharmacokinetic parameters of morphine that have been found in neonates, i.e., higher volume of distribution, immature metabolic processes that develop at various rates, elimination that is variable based on age and weight, as well as treated and untreated disease processes, are an example of all opioids in the population discussed in this review. Outside the premature and neonatal population, the use of opioids in infants, children, and adolescents quickly begins to resemble the established values found in adults. As such, the concerns (risks) of these medications become comparable to those seen in adults.