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Female Doctor prescribing medicine
October 17, 2018

Medical management of opioid-induced constipation differs than for other forms of the condition

New AGA guideline provides guidance on medical management of opioid-induced constipation.
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Bethesda, MD (Oct. 17, 2018) — Traditional laxatives are recommended as first-line agents to treat patients with a confirmed diagnosis of opioid-induced constipation (OIC), according to a new guideline from the American Gastroenterological Association (AGA). If an adequate trial of laxatives results in suboptimal symptom control, the guidelines recommend peripherally-acting mu-opioid receptor antagonist (PAMORA) drugs, namely naldemedine, naloxegol and methylnatrexone. This class of drugs has shown to improve bowel symptoms without compromise to pain relief, although there can be associated side effects, including diarrhea and abdominal pain. The new guideline1 and accompanying technical review2 have been published in Gastroenterology, the official journal of the AGA Institute.    

“Opioid overuse has become a public health crisis in America. What the public often doesn’t hear about are just how common gastrointestinal side effects, especially constipation, are in opioid users,” says Seth D. Crockett, MD, MPH, lead author of the guideline, University of North Carolina School of Medicine, Chapel Hill. “Physicians have struggled with treating this condition due to previous lack of clinical guidance. The new AGA guideline clarifies existing data and provides clear direction for physicians on how to best treat opioid-induced constipation.”  

Opioid-induced constipation is estimated to affect 40 to 60 percent of patients taking chronic opioid therapy. Estimates now show that up to 5 percent of Americans are currently taking opioids regularly.   

 The term opioid-induced constipation (OIC) refers to constipation that is a result of using opioids. A consensus definition is, “a change when initiating opioid therapy from baseline bowel habits that is characterized by any of the following: reduced bowel movement frequency, development or worsening of straining to pass bowel movements, a sense of incomplete rectal evacuation, or harder stool frequency.”    

For medical management of OIC, the guideline recommends: 

  • Start with traditional laxatives as first-line agents. 
  • In patients who don’t respond to traditional laxatives, AGA recommends naldemedine over no treatment. 
  • In patients who don’t respond to traditional laxatives, AGA recommends naloxegol over no treatment. 
  • In patients who don’t respond to traditional laxatives, AGA suggests methylnatrexone over no treatment. 

The new AGA clinical guideline on medical management of opioid-induced constipation presumes that patients have been appropriately diagnosed and that they have either a prolonged requirement or dependence on opioids. Nevertheless, one of the first steps for physicians managing patients with OIC is to ensure they are on the lowest possible dose of opioids needed. There may also be benefit in “opioid switching” to a less constipating formulation. This guideline focuses on the medical management of OIC. Therefore, it does not address the role of psychological therapy, alternative medicine approaches, surgery or devices.  

Read the “American Gastroenterological Institute Guideline on the Medical Management of Opioid-Induced Constipation” to review all of the treatment recommendations. 

 This guideline employs the Grading of Recommendations Assessment, Development and Evaluation (GRADE) methodology. GRADE has been adopted by several national and international societies, including the AGA, and is becoming the common methodology for the streamlined and rigorous development of clear, transparent and actionable guidelines.  

1 Crockett S.D., Greer K.B., Heidelbaugh J.J., Falck-Ytter Y., Hanson B.J., Sultan S.; American Gastroenterological Association Institute Guideline on the Medical Management of Opioid-Induced Constipation. Gastroenterology (2018). doi: 10.1053/j.gastro.2018.07.016. 

Hanson B., Siddique S.M., Scarlett Y., Sultan S.; American Gastroenterological Association Institute Technical Review on the Medical Management of Opioid-Induced Constipation. Gastroenterology (2018). doi: 10.1053/j.gastro.2018.08.018.

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 Media contact: Aimee Frank,, 301-941-2620  

About the AGA Institute  

The American Gastroenterological Association is the trusted voice of the GI community. Founded in 1897, the AGA has grown to include more than 16,000 members from around the globe who are involved in all aspects of the science, practice and advancement of gastroenterology. The AGA Institute administers the practice, research and educational programs of the organization.

About Gastroenterology 

Gastroenterology, the official journal of the AGA Institute, is the most prominent scientific journal in the specialty and is in the top 1 percent of indexed medical journals internationally. The journal publishes clinical and basic science studies of all aspects of the digestive system, including the liver and pancreas, as well as nutrition. The journal is abstracted and indexed in Biological Abstracts, Current Awareness in Biological Sciences, Chemical Abstracts, Current Contents, Excerpta Medica, Index Medicus, Nutrition Abstracts and Science Citation Index. For more information, visit

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