What Is Demerol and When Is It Used?

Why This Medication Is Not the Best Choice for Pain Management

Hospital Patient
SchulteProductions/E+/Getty Images

Demerol (meperidine) is a narcotic, or opioid, pain medication that has been around for quite some time. It was once used frequently in hospital settings to treat moderate to severe pain, and is still sometimes used prior to or during a surgical procedure to enhance the effects of anesthesia.

However, the duration of Demerol's pain relieving effects is shorter than other narcotics, and its production of toxic metabolites make it an inferior medication for pain control.

Demerol also has a long list of potentially dangerous interactions with other medications. For these reasons, Demerol is now less frequently used to treat pain.

How Does Demerol Work?

The pain relieving properties of Demerol differ from other medications, such as morphine because, instead of keeping nerve endings from transmitting messages of pain to the brain, Demerol acts on the central nervous system, essentially tricking the brain by replacing the feeling of pain with a "high." Patients who are given Demerol for pain are basically feeling the euphoric effects of the medication instead of their pain.

Why Has Demerol Fallen Out of Favor?

Hospitals and outpatient clinics don't use Demerol as frequently as they used to because of safety issues: Demerol can be toxic when high doses are used, and it has a long list of side effects, which include:

  • Respiratory depression (slowed breathing)
  • Dizziness, lightheadedness
  • Blurred vision
  • Low blood pressure
  • Tremors or seizures
  • Rapid heart rate or abnormal heart beats
  • Nausea and vomiting

Demerol is also highly addictive for some people and has multiple adverse interactions with other medications.

Current Use of Demerol

Demerol is not recommended for either short-term use or to treat acute pain.

The American Pain Society and the Institute for Safe Medication Practice (ISMP) do not recommend Demerol's use as pain relieving medication. If it must be used to treat acute pain, it should only be used for a maximum of 48 hours and shouldn't be given to patients with kidney or neurological diseases. Demerol shouldn't be used long-term to treat chronic pain and it's no longer used in palliative care or hospice settings either.

Where and When Demerol Is Used Today

Demerol may be used in hospital or outpatient setting for patients undergoing anesthesia. It is still routinely used with other medications in order to cause sedation in patients undergoing procedures such as a colonoscopy or endoscopy.

If you or your loved one has had Demerol prescribed to you by a physician to treat pain, I encourage you to speak with your physician about other possible options. There are other medications that may be more effective at treating pain, with fewer side effects.

Further Reading

Why Demerol is No Longer Routinely Used To Treat Pain.

 Demerol (meperidine) is a narcotic pain reliever that has fallen out of favor in recent years.  In the past, Demerol was used for a variety of painful conditions, including pain after surgery.  In recent years, the pain medication has largely been ignored as safer medications, such as morphine, Dilaudid, and Fentanyl have become more commonly prescribed.


Hanks, G, Cherry, NI, Fulton, M. Opioid Anaglesic Therapy. In: Doyle, D, Hanks, G, Cherry, NI., et al. Oxford Textbook of Palliative Medicine. 3rd Edition. New York: Oxford University Press. 2004: 316-341

UpToDate.com "Meperidine: Drug Information" Accessed 6/28/2009. www.uptodate.com

Continue Reading