Does Morphine Hasten Death?

Dear Barbara, I have a man that regrets giving his father morphine for pain at the end. His father had cancer all over. What would you say to him to make him understand that he did not kill his father? After his father passed a family member made a comment that he gave morphine until his father died.

The use of Morphine is one of the most misunderstood practices I encounter with families and end of life issues. Our society is so drug conscious we tend to equate any use as misuse.

First, let’s understand end of life pain. Dying is not painful, disease causes pain. If pain has not been an issue in the person’s disease history then just because death is approaching does not mean the person is in pain. We do not need to use a narcotic for comfort. Ibuprofen is my drug of choice.

If pain has been an issue during the disease process then we certainly want to continue to provide adequate pain management until the last breath is taken. Just because a person is non-responsive (which most people are before death) does not mean that pain is not there. We also need to know that whatever was causing the pain is not removed by the narcotic. The narcotic just covers up the pain. We must keep the cover on. In end of life pain management we also need to know that the use of narcotics over time tends to require increasing the amount of the narcotic.

I am trying to put a lot of detailed information into a few words, but end of life pain management is really an all day or more workshop.

Now let’s address the major concern---hastening death with the administration of morphine (or any narcotic). When a person is days to hours before death their body is shutting down. Nothing works right. Circulation, the blood flowing through the body, is slower and less effective (this is what the bluish color to the hands and feet shows). When you give any medication at that time it does not get absorbed and become effective in the same way it would in a body that’s functioning normally. This is why giving pain medicine to someone who is actively dying is rarely the cause of death.

This father had “cancer all over”. I believe that means he had the potential for pain, lots of pain, in his disease progression. Morphine given continually is a must to keep this man relaxed and relatively comfortable. The morphine did not kill him, it allowed him to leave this world more gently than if he were suffering physically.

Now let's explore a controversial thought. What if the morphine had killed his father? He had a terminal illness. In fact his father was actually in the dying process. There was no reversing what was physically happening. Death was coming. What if hours of life (a few hours) could be extended by withholding the pain medicine? The result would be physical pain causing agitation and extreme discomfort even though the body is non-responsive. By continuing to give the morphine the last hours could be relaxed and relatively comfortable. Either way the person, as death approaches, is non-responsive. The misconception is that by withholding the narcotic the person would be alert and interactive. That is not the case. Either way the person will be non-responsive. It is just that in one scenario the person is hurting and the other they are not. What would you want?

Something more about Does Morphine Hasten Death?...

There are so many questions and concerns about narcotics. In my booklet, Pain At End of Life, I address the issue of narcotics and how they are used in end of life care.

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52 comments

Judie

Very difficult decisions! “To have or not to have morphine in the last stages.” I know of someone with an almost identical experience. Great article with clarity and comfort for those with very similar experiences.

kelvin craddock

I was wondering about this myself since my wife was given morphine for cancer until she passed away. This makes me feel somewhat better.

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