Tramadol (INN) (IPA: ) is an atypical opioid which is a centrally acting analgesic, used for treating moderate to severe pain. It is a synthetic agent, unrelated to other opioids, and appears to have actions on the GABAergic, noradrenergic and serotonergic systems. Tramadol was developed by the German pharmaceutical company Grünenthal GmbH and marketed under the trade name Tramal®. Grünenthal has also cross licensed the drug to many other pharmaceutical companies that market it under various names, some of which are listed below.
Tramadol is available in both injectable (intravenous and/or intramuscular) and oral preparations. It is usually marketed as the hydrochloride salt (tramadol hydrochloride).
Dosages vary depending on the degree of pain experienced by the patient. Tramadol is approximately 10% as potent as morphine, when given by the IV/IM route. Oral doses range from 50–400 mg daily, with up to 600 mg daily when given IV/IM.
Mechanism of action
The mechanism of action of tramadol has yet to be fully elucidated, but it is believed to work through modulation of the GABAergic, noradrenergic and serotonergic systems. The contribution of non-opioid activity is demonstrated by the analgesic effects of tramadol not being fully antagonised by the μ-opioid receptor antagonist naloxone.
Tramadol is marketed as a racemic mixture with a weak affinity for the μ-opioid receptor (approximately 1/6000th that of morphine). The (+)-enantiomer is approximately four times more potent than the (-)-enantiomer in terms of μ-opioid receptor affinity and 5-HT reuptake, whereas the (-)-enantiomer is responsible for noradrenaline reuptake effects (Shipton, 2000). These actions appear to produce a synergistic analgesic effect, with (+)-tramadol exhibiting 10-fold higher analgesic activity than (-)-tramadol (Goeringer et al., 1997).
The serotonergic modulating properties of tramadol mean that it has the potential to interact with other serotonergic agents. There is an increased risk of serotonin syndrome when tramadol is taken in combination with serotonin reuptake inhibitors (e.g. SSRIs), since these agents not only potentiate the effect of 5-HT but also inhibit tramadol's metabolism.
Tramadol undergoes hepatic metabolism via the cytochrome P450 isozyme CYP2D6, being O- and N-demethylated to 5 different metabolites. Of these, M1 is the most significant since it has 200 times the μ-affinity of (+)-tramadol, and furthermore has an elimination half-life of 9 hours compared to 6 hours for tramadol itself. In the 6% of the population who have slow CYP2D6 activity, there is therefore a slightly reduced anlagesic effect. Phase II hepatic metabolism renders the metabolites water-soluble and they are renally excreted. Thus reduced doses may be used in renal and hepatic impairment.
The most commonly reported adverse drug reactions are nausea, vomiting and sweating. Drowsiness is reported, although it is less of an issue compared to other opioids. Respiratory depression, a common side effect of most opioids, is not clinically significant in normal doses. By itself, it does not increase the seizure threshold, though it may do if used in combination with SSRIs, tricyclic antidepressants, or in patients with epilepsy.
Some controversy exists regarding the dependence liability of tramadol. Grünenthal has promoted it as an opioid with a low risk of dependence compared to traditonal opioids, claiming little evidence of such dependence in clinical trials. They offer the theory that since the M1 metabolite is the principal agonist at μ-opioid receptors, the delayed agonist activity reduces dependence liability. The noradrenaline reuptake effects may also play a role in reducing dependence.
Despite these claims it is apparent, in community practice, that dependence to this agent does occur. This would be expected since analgesic and dependence effects mediated by the same μ-opioid receptor. However, this dependence liability is considered relatively low by health authorities, such that tramadol is classified as a Schedule 4 Prescription Only Medicine in Australia, rather than as a Schedule 8 Controlled Drug like other opioids (Rossi, 2004). Similarly, tramadol is not currently scheduled by the U.S. DEA, unlike other opioid analgesics. Nevertheless, the Prescribing Information for Ultram warns that tramadol "may induce psychic and physical dependence of the morphine-type."
Grünenthal, which still owns the patent to tramadol, has cross-licensed the agent to various pharmaceutical companies internationally. Thus tramadol is marketed under many trade names including: Adolonta, Contramal, Crispin, Nobligan, Siverol, Tiparol, Toplagic, Tradolan, Tralgit, Tramacet, Tramadin, Tramal, Ultracet, Ultram, Zamadol and Zydol.
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