Refractory dyspnea or breathlessness is a common symptom in patients with advanced chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), with a high negative impact on quality of life (QoL). Low dosed opioids have been investigated for refractory dyspnea in COPD and other life-limiting conditions, and some positive effects were demonstrated. However, upon first assessment of the literature, the quality of evidence in COPD seemed low or inconclusive, and focused mainly on morphine which may have more side effects than other opioids such as fentanyl. For the current publication we performed a systematic literature search. We searched for placebo-controlled randomized clinical trials investigating opioids for refractory dyspnea caused by COPD. We included trials reporting on dyspnea, health status and/or QoL. Three of fifteen trials demonstrated a significant positive effect of opioids on dyspnea. Only one of four trials reporting on QoL or health status, demonstrated a significant positive effect. Two-thirds of included trials investigated morphine. We found no placebo-controlled RCT on transdermal fentanyl. Subsequently, we hypothesized that both fentanyl and morphine provide a greater reduction of dyspnea than placebo, and that fentanyl has less side effects than morphine.
We describe the design of a robust, multi-center, double blind, double-dummy, cross-over, randomized, placebo-controlled clinical trial with three study arms investigating transdermal fentanyl 12 mcg/h and morphine sustained-release 10 mg b.i.d. The primary endpoint is change in daily mean dyspnea sensation measured on a numeric rating scale. Secondary endpoints are change in daily worst dyspnea, QoL, anxiety, sleep quality, hypercapnia, side effects, patient preference, and continued opioid use. Sixty patients with severe stable COPD and refractory dyspnea (FEV < 50%, mMRC ≥ 3, on optimal standard therapy) will be included.
Evidence for opioids for refractory dyspnea in COPD is not as robust as usually appreciated. We designed a study comparing both the more commonly used opioid morphine, and transdermal fentanyl to placebo. The cross-over design will help to get a better impression of patient preferences. We believe our study design to investigate both sustained-release morphine and transdermal fentanyl for refractory dyspnea will provide valuable information for better treatment of refractory dyspnea in COPD. Trial registration NCT03834363 (, registred at 7 Feb 2019, .

© 2021. The Author(s).