Don’t let these morphine myths get in the way of a better death

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Elisabeth Smith author of Morphine Myths article

Elisabeth G. Smith, MS, BSN, RN, CHPN, Director of Education

We all have preconceived notions about morphine based on misinformation or fictionalized events portrayed by Hollywood. Many people harbor these morphine myths when they or a loved one become a hospice patient. It’s an important medication in hospice care. We know it brings comfort to people who are in pain or are having trouble breathing. To provide the best care for our patients, we need morphine. We work every day to dispel these myths.

Myth: Morphine can stop people from breathing.

Fact: Among terminal lung disease patients, 95% report breathlessness as a symptom. It can feel like you’re drowning, gasping for air. Morphine opens the blood vessels allowing more blood circulation within the respiratory system. This makes it easier for the lungs to get the bad gases out and the good gases in. The patient becomes calm, their breathing slows down.

A runner is a great example of how this works in healthy people. When they are running a race, they are breathing hard and fast. The body requires more oxygen to fuel this burst of energy. When they finish the race, their body is fully oxygenated. Their breathing naturally slows down.

With morphine dilatating vessels and increasing oxygenation, it’s like breathing while sleeping. Breathing slows down to match their body’s demand, not stopping it.

Myth: Morphine can speed up death.

Fact: If a patient dies shortly after receiving morphine, it may look like the morphine caused the death simply because of the timing.

Many patients are unable to rest because of symptoms. Often suffering is holding back death. Remove the suffering and death can happen in its own timing. Morphine is fast acting, so this can happen in minutes. It didn’t make the death occur; it removed the barrier.

We want our loved ones to be comfortable and die as peacefully as possible. Controlling the symptoms is key.

There are other myths about morphine that we will examine in a future article. The World Health Organization has endorsed it as the gold standard of opioids. It’s considered the first-line treatment for moderate-to-severe pain and shortness of breath. We can’t let its wrongly earned reputation stop us from using it to help our loved ones find comfort and peace at the end of life.

For more morphine myths dispelled, click here to read “Don’t deny your loved one comfort because of  these morphine myths”

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