Morphine and Surgery: Drug Usage, Side Effects, and Risks

Morphine Sulfate is a narcotic opioid analgesic, which means it's a drug that provides the same type of pain relief as opium derived from the poppy plant. Morphine is a powerful pain reliever used for both acute (short term) and chronic pain. It is also used, much less frequently, as a cough suppressant, for difficulty breathing, and to stop diarrhea.

Morphine was first purified from the opium poppy in the early 1800s. But poppy-based medicines similar to morphine were used as early as the 1500s. It is one of many medications commonly used during and after surgery.

Centuries later, morphine is available in a wide variety of forms including long and short-acting forms and is used to treat pain caused by a variety of diseases, illnesses, and injuries. Morphine, is effective, inexpensive and readily available, which makes it a valuable medication around the world.

Nurse setting up IV drip
Echo / Getty Images

Names for Morphine

Morphine is prescribed under a variety of names, abbreviations and both brand and generic names. Those names include Arymo, MS Contin, Kadian, Morphabond, MOS, Duramorph, Morphitec, MS, Roxanol, and epidural morphine.

How It's Administered

Morphine is available in a variety of forms, and it can be given as an injection, pill, epidural, oral solution, suppository or sublingually (under the tongue). Taking morphine as directed is important, as are realistic expectations. Some pain is to be expected and does not mean that more pain medication is necessary. It is best to use the medication when the first signs of pain occur; it may not work as well if the pain has worsened.

Side Effects

Common side effects of morphine include:

  • Constipation: After surgery, it is important to prevent constipation, which can become a major complication.
  • Decreased coughing
  • Loss of appetite
  • Sleepiness
  • Dizziness
  • Difficulty urinating or pain when urinating
  • Vomiting
  • Headache

Call your healthcare provider or seek medical care immediately if you develop any of the following:

  • Rash
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Seizures
  • Itching
  • Swelling of your throat, face, or tongue
  • Fainting

Associated Risks

Every drug has risks, and morphine is no exception. Risks are increased with higher doses, long-term use and especially inappropriate use without a prescription. To minimize these risks, follow the instructions on your prescription and only take the medication when appropriate for pain control.

  • Depressed breathing (breathing too slowly or too shallowly, including respiratory failure and death)
  • Headache
  • Confusion
  • Memory problems
  • Severe constipation
  • Anxiety
  • Memory problems
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Tolerance
  • Addiction


Patients who are nursing should consult their healthcare provider before taking morphine, as it may be expressed in breast milk. In pregnant women, prolonged use of morphine may result in the baby experiencing morphine withdrawal shortly after birth. Let your pediatrician know right away if your baby has any of the following symptoms: hyperactivity, uncontrollable shaking of a part of the body, vomiting, diarrhea, high-pitched cry, abnormal sleep, irritability, or failure to gain weight.

Patients with constipation may experience a worsening of symptoms. Those with other intestine conditions should use morphine with caution as it can slow digestion and result in a worsening condition. Morphine should also be used with caution in people with respiratory conditions including COPD or asthma.

The elderly may be more sensitive to morphine. Their dosages may need to be adjusted to prevent an overdose or pronounced side effects.

Tolerance, Addiction, and Abuse

Morphine, like many prescription drugs, may require larger doses for pain control when used for extended periods of time. Over time, the body can develop a tolerance for the medication and will require more medication to experience the same level of effectiveness.

People with chronic pain who use morphine may become physically dependent on the medication, meaning that they will experience signs and symptoms of withdrawal when they do not take the drug. Drug dependence does not necessarily mean the drug needs to be stopped. For example, a patient being treated for cancer-related pain could become physically dependent on morphine. However, the drug will continue to be given as needed for pain relief.

Addiction is not the same as dependence. Addiction is a chronic and relapsing brain condition that involves compulsive drug seeking and use, usually with negative consequences. Addiction is a component of opioid use disorder. Opioid use disorder can also involve mixing opioids with other drugs such as alcohol and taking larger or more frequent doses than necessary for pain management.

A Word From Verywell

Morphine is a drug that has been used for decades with great success in treating pain. While addiction and opioid use disorder remain a major problem in the United States, when taken appropriately morphine remains both safe and effective for short-term use. Long-term use should be monitored closely and will be safest when taking the minimum amount to decrease pain to tolerable levels. Talk to your healthcare provider if you want to discontinue taking the drug since the dose may need to be decreased gradually. Suddenly stopping morphine may lead to withdrawal symptoms.

7 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Dickinson RS, Morjaria JB, Wright CE, Morice AH. Is opiate action in cough due to sedation? Ther Adv Chronic Dis. 2014;5(5):200-5. doi:10.1177/2040622314543220

  2. Weinstein EJ, Levene JL, Cohen MS, et al. Local anaesthetics and regional anaesthesia versus conventional analgesia for preventing persistent postoperative pain in adults and children. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2018;4:CD007105. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD007105.pub3

  3. U.S. National Library of Medicine, MedlinePlus. Morphine. Revised October 15, 2019.

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Basics about opiod use during pregnancy. Reviewed July 1, 2019.

  5. Vozoris NT, Wang X, Fischer HD, et al. Incident opioid drug use and adverse respiratory outcomes among older adults with COPD. Eur Respir J. 2016;48(3):683-93. doi:10.1183/13993003.01967-2015

  6. Adesoyem A, Duncan N. Acute pain management in patients with opioid tolerance. US Pharm. 2017;42(3):28-32.

  7. U.S. National Library of Medicine, Genetics Home Reference. Opiod addiction. December 10, 2019.

Additional Reading
  • Morphine. University of Maryland Medical Center.

By Jennifer Whitlock, RN, MSN, FN
Jennifer Whitlock, RN, MSN, FNP-C, is a board-certified family nurse practitioner. She has experience in primary care and hospital medicine.