The purpose of morphine and other painkillers throughout the dying process may seem fairly clear — to relieve pain. While this is true, morphine and other related opiates (such as codeine, hydromorphone, or fentanyl), have another purpose: to decrease the shortness of breath among the dying. Also known as dyspnea, short or labored breathing is a common experience among those in the dying process. While not necessarily painful, symptoms of dyspnea are uncomfortable and can greatly induce feelings of distress or anxiety. As somewhat of a catch 22, the anxiety surrounding dyspnea can exacerbate the symptoms and make breathing even more difficult. In order to provide relief from these symptoms, opiates such as morphine may be used to help alleviate both anxieties as well as the shortness of the breath.
Can Morphine Speed Up Dying?
Some families of the dying or even the dying themselves may have some reservations against using morphine and other painkillers to decrease breathlessness. There is an erroneous idea that morphine hastens the dying process. Part of this misconception is from experiences where death was immediately preceded by a dose of morphine. This is an important time to remember that correlation does not imply causation. The doses of morphine given to the dying are of relatively low and do not directly hasten death. Doses are given in relation to the person’s breathing needs and levels of discomfort. The purpose of hospice or palliative care is not to bring about death, but to alleviate as much pain and discomfort as possible from the dying process. For this, morphine is often a useful tool.
If you would like to speak with a hospice or palliative care specialist, the professionals from Tulsa’s Cura HPC are here to help.