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MS Contin (Morphine Sulfate) - Description and Clinical Pharmacology



Chemically, morphine sulfate is 7,8-didehydro-4,5α-epoxy-17-methylmorphinan-3,6α-diol sulfate (2:1) (salt) pentahydrate and has the following structural formula:

MS CONTIN® (morphine sulfate controlled-release) Tablets are opiate analgesics supplied in 15, 30, 60, 100 and 200 mg tablet strengths. The tablet strengths describe the amount of morphine per tablet as the pentahydrated sulfate salt (morphine sulfate, USP). MS CONTIN® Controlled-release Tablets 15 mg, 30 mg, 60 mg, 100 mg, and 200 mg contain the following inactive ingredients: cetostearyl alcohol, hydroxyethyl cellulose, hypromellose, magnesium stearate, polyethylene glycol, talc and titanium dioxide.

MS CONTIN Controlled-release Tablets 15 mg also contains FD&C Blue No. 2, lactose and polysorbate 80.

MS CONTIN Controlled-release Tablets 30 mg also contains D&C Red No. 7, FD&C Blue No. 1, lactose and polysorbate 80.

MS CONTIN Controlled-release Tablets 60 mg also contains D&C Red No. 30, D&C Yellow No. 10, hydroxypropyl cellulose, and lactose.

MS CONTIN Controlled-release Tablets 100 mg also contains black iron oxide.

MS CONTIN Controlled-release Tablets 200 mg also contains D&C Yellow No. 10, FD&C Blue No. 1, and hydroxypropyl cellulose.


Morphine is a pure opioid agonist whose principal therapeutic action is analgesia. Other members of the class known as opioid agonists include substances such as oxycodone, hydromorphone, fentanyl, codeine, and hydrocodone. Pharmacological effects of opioid agonists include anxiolysis, euphoria, feelings of relaxation, respiratory depression, constipation, miosis, cough suppression, and analgesia. Like all pure opioid agonist analgesics, with increasing doses there is increasing analgesia, unlike with mixed agonist/antagonists or non-opioid analgesics, where there is a limit to the analgesic effect with increasing doses. With pure opioid agonist analgesics, there is no defined maximum dose; the ceiling to analgesic effectiveness is imposed only by side effects, the more serious which may include somnolence and respiratory depression.

Central Nervous System

The principal actions of therapeutic value of morphine are analgesia and sedation (i.e., sleepiness and anxiolysis).

The precise mechanism of the analgesic action is unknown. However, specific CNS opiate receptors for endogenous compounds with opioid-like activity have been identified throughout the brain and spinal cord and are likely to play a role in the expression of analgesic effects.

Morphine produces respiratory depression by direct action on brainstem respiratory centers. The mechanism of respiratory depression involves a reduction in the responsiveness of the brainstem respiratory centers to increases in carbon dioxide tension, and to electrical stimulation.

Morphine depresses the cough reflex by direct effect on the cough center in the medulla. Antitussive effects may occur with doses lower than those usually required for analgesia. Morphine causes miosis, even in total darkness. Pinpoint pupils are a sign of narcotic overdose but are not pathognomonic (e.g., pontine lesions of hemorrhagic or ischemic origins may produce similar findings). Marked mydriasis rather than miosis may be seen with worsening hypoxia.

Gastrointestinal Tract and Other Smooth Muscle

Morphine causes a reduction in motility associated with an increase in smooth muscle tone in the antrum of the stomach and in the duodenum. Digestion of food is delayed in the small intestine and propulsive contractions are decreased. Propulsive peristaltic waves in the colon are decreased, while tone may be increased to the point of spasm resulting in constipation. Other opioid induced-effects may include a reduction in gastric, biliary and pancreatic secretions, spasm of the sphincter of Oddi, and transient elevations in serum amylase.

Cardiovascular System

Morphine produces peripheral vasodilation which may result in orthostatic hypotension. Release of histamine can occur and may contribute to opioid-induced hypotension. Manifestations of histamine release and/or peripheral vasodilation may include pruritus, flushing, red eyes, and sweating.

Endocrine System

Opioids have been shown to have a variety of effects on the secretion of hormones. Opioids inhibit the secretion of ACTH, cortisol, and luteinizing hormone (LH) in humans. They also stimulate prolactin, growth hormone (GH) secretion, and pancreatic secretion of insulin and glucagons in humans and other species, rats and dogs. Thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) has been shown to be both inhibited and stimulated by opioids.

Immune System

Opioids have been shown to have a variety of effects on components of the immune system in in vitro and animal models. The clinical significance of these findings is unknown.


As with all opioids, the minimum effective plasma concentration for analgesia varies widely among patients, especially among patients who have been previously treated with potent agonist opioids. As a result, patients must be treated with individualized titration of dosage to the desired effect. The minimum effective analgesic concentration of morphine for any individual patient may increase over time due to an increase in pain, the development of new pain syndrome and/or the development of analgesic tolerance.

Plasma Level-Analgesia Relationships

In any particular patient, both analgesic effects and plasma morphine concentrations are related to the morphine dose. In non-tolerant individuals, plasma morphine concentration-efficacy relationships have been demonstrated and suggest that opiate receptors occupy effector compartments, leading to a lag-time, or hysteresis, between rapid changes in plasma morphine concentrations and the effects of such changes. The most direct and predictable concentration-effect relationships can, therefore, be expected at distribution equilibrium and/or steady-state conditions.

While plasma morphine-efficacy relationships can be demonstrated in non-tolerant individuals, they are influenced by a wide variety of factors and are not generally useful as a guide to the clinical use of morphine. The effective dose in opioid-tolerant patients may be significantly greater than the appropriate dose for opioid-naive individuals. Dosages of morphine should be chosen and must be titrated on the basis of clinical evaluation of the patient and the balance between therapeutic and adverse effects.

For any fixed dose and dosing interval, MS CONTIN will have at steady-state, a lower Cmax and a higher Cmin than conventional morphine.

Concentration - Adverse Experience Relationships

MS CONTIN® Tablets are associated with typical opioid-related adverse experiences. There is a general relationship between increasing morphine plasma concentration and increasing frequency of dose-related opioid adverse experiences such as nausea, vomiting, CNS effects, and respiratory depression. In opioid-tolerant patients, the situation is altered by the development of tolerance to opioid-related side effects, and the relationship is not clinically relevant.

As with all opioids, the dose must be individualized (see DOSAGE AND ADMINISTRATION), because the effective analgesic dose for some patients will be too high to be tolerated by other patients.


MS CONTIN is a controlled-release tablet containing morphine sulfate. Morphine is released from MS CONTIN somewhat more slowly than from immediate-release oral preparations. Following oral administration of a given dose of morphine, the amount ultimately absorbed is essentially the same whether the source is MS CONTIN or an immediate-release formulation. Because of pre-systemic elimination (i.e., metabolism in the gut wall and liver) only about 40% of the administered dose reaches the central compartment.

Variation in the physical/mechanical properties of a formulation of an oral morphine drug product can affect both its absolute bioavailability and its absorption rate constant (ka). The formulation employed in MS CONTIN has not been shown to affect morphine's oral bioavailability, but does decrease its apparent ka. Other basic pharmacokinetic parameters (e.g., volume of distribution [Vd], elimination rate constant [ke], clearance [Cl]), are unchanged as they are fundamental properties of morphine in the organism. However, in chronic use, the possibility that shifts in metabolite to parent drug ratios may occur cannot be excluded.

When immediate-release oral morphine or MS CONTIN is given on a fixed dosing regimen, steady-state is achieved in about a day.

For a given dose and dosing interval, the AUC and average blood concentration of morphine at steady-state (Css) will be independent of the specific type of oral formulation administered so long as the formulations have the same absolute bioavailability. The absorption rate of a formulation will, however, affect the maximum (Cmax) and minimum (Cmin) blood levels and the times of their occurrence.


Following the administration of immediate-release oral morphine products, approximately fifty percent of the morphine that will reach the central compartment intact reaches it within 30 minutes. Following the administration of an equal amount of MS CONTIN to normal volunteers, however, this extent of absorption occurs, on average, after 1.5 hours.

Food Effects

The possible effect of food upon the systemic bioavailability of MS CONTIN® has not been systematically evaluated for all strengths. One study, conducted with the 30 mg MS CONTIN Tablets, showed no significant differences in Cmax and AUC (0-24h) values, whether the tablet was taken while fasting or with a high-fat breakfast.


The volume of distribution (Vd) for morphine is approximately 4 liters per kilogram. Once absorbed, morphine is distributed to skeletal muscle, kidneys, liver, intestinal tract, lungs, spleen, and brain. Morphine also crosses the placental membranes and has been found in breast milk.


Although a small fraction (less than 5%) of morphine is demethylated, for all practical purposes, virtually all morphine is converted to the 3- and 6- (M3G and M6G) glucuronide metabolites. M3G is present in the highest plasma concentration following oral administration and possesses no significant analgesic activity. M6G, while possessing analgesic activity, is present in the plasma in low concentrations.


The elimination of morphine occurs primarily as renal excretion of morphine-3- glucuronide and its terminal elimination half-life after intravenous administration is normally 2 to 4 hours. In some studies involving longer periods of plasma sampling, a longer terminal half-life of about 15 hours was reported. A small amount of the glucuronide conjugate is excreted in the bile, and there is some minor enterohepatic recycling. As with any drug, caution should be taken to guard against unanticipated accumulation if renal and/or hepatic function is seriously impaired.

Special Populations

Renal Impairment

Morphine pharmacokinetics are altered in patients with renal failure. Clearance is decreased and the metabolites, M3G and M6G, may accumulate to much higher plasma levels in these patients as compared to patients with normal renal function.

Drug-Drug Interactions

Known drug-drug interactions involving morphine are pharmacodynamic not pharmacokinetic.

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