The study, conducted by Dr. Asokumar Buvanendran, associate professor, Department of Anesthesiology at Rush University Medical Center, Chicago, was presented at the American Society of Anesthesiologists meeting in San Francisco on October 13.
Opioid pain relievers, such as morphine and other narcotics, carry warning labels insisting patients not to drive or operate heavy machinery during use. In addition, drivers under the influence of pain medication are typically subjected to the same laws and penalties as drivers under the influence of alcohol.
And yet, in a recent, preliminary study Buvanendran found no difference in the "driving skills and reaction times" of patients taking morphine compared to non-medicated drivers.
For the study, Buvanendran compared two groups of patients: 51 patients chronically receiving oral morphine and 49 patients (the control group) receiving no pain medication.
Each study participant drove for approximately 12 minutes in a driving simulator that measured deviation from the center of the road, weaving, the number of accidents, and reaction time to surprise events.
It was found that the amount of weaving was 3.83 feet for both sets of drivers, and the opioid group had 5.33 collisions compared to the non-opioid group with 5.04 (no statistical difference). Reaction time also was similar for both groups: 0.69 seconds for the controlled group and 0.67 for the opioid group.
Buvanendran said the findings suggested that patients who need, long-term pain medicine actually may 'become tolerant' to the medication side effects that potentially impair function.
He said that in the future, these patients might be able to live "like normal functioning people, without the stigma and limitations now associated with long-term pain medication use."
Fewer restrictions also will allow patients to travel more easily and access treatments, ultimately improving their quality of life.
This research model will be used in future studies to assess the effects of other types of anesthetics and pain medication.