The use of opioid medications on both an acute and chronic basis is ubiquitous in the United States. As opioid receptors densely populate the gastrointestinal tract, symptoms and side effects can be expected in these patients. In the esophagus, dysmotility may result, manifesting with dysphagia and a syndrome indistinguishable from primary achalasia. In the stomach, a marked delay in gastric emptying may occur with postprandial nausea and early satiety. Postoperatively, particularly with abdominal surgery, opioid-induced ileus may ensue. In the colon, opioid-induced constipation is common. A unique syndrome termed narcotic bowel syndrome is characterized by chronic abdominal pain often accompanied by nausea and vomiting in the absence of other identifiable causes. With the recognition of the important role of opioids on gastrointestinal function, novel drugs have been developed that use this physiology. These medications include peripheral acting opioid agonists to treat opioid-induced constipation and combination agonist and antagonists used for diarrhea-predominant irritable bowel syndrome. This review summarizes the most recent data in these areas.
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