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Mechanism Of Action

Hydromorphone, a semi-synthetic morphine derivative, is a hydrogenated ketone of morphine. Hydromorphone is principally an agonist of mu-receptors, showing a weak affinity for κ-receptors. Comparing relative binding affinity for mu-and κ-opioid receptors, hydromorphone binds more specifically to mu-receptors than structurally related morphine. As an opioid agonist, the principle therapeutic action of hydromorphone is analgesia. The precise mechanism of action of opioid analgesics is not known but the effects are thought to be mediated through opioid-specific receptors located predominantly in the central nervous system (CNS). Interaction with the mu-opioid receptor subtype is believed to be responsible for most of hydromorphone's clinical effects. There is no intrinsic limit to the analgesic effect of hydromorphone. Clinically, however, dosage limitations are imposed by the adverse effects, primarily respiratory depression, sedation, nausea, and vomiting, which can result from high doses.


CNS Depressant/Alcohol Interaction

Additive pharmacodynamic effects may be expected when EXALGO is used in conjunction with alcohol, other opioids, legal or illicit drugs that cause central nervous system depression.

Effects on the Central Nervous System

Hydromorphone produces dose-related respiratory depression by direct action on brain stem respiratory centers. The respiratory depression involves a reduction in the responsiveness of the brain stem respiratory centers to increases in carbon dioxide tension and to electrical stimulation.

Hydromorphone depresses the cough reflex by direct effect on the cough center in the medulla.

Hydromorphone causes miosis, even in total darkness. Pinpoint pupils are a sign of opioid overdose but are not pathognomic. Marked mydriasis, rather than miosis, may be seen due to severe hypoxia in overdose situations.

Effects on the Gastrointestinal Tract and Other Smooth Muscle

Gastric, biliary and pancreatic secretions are decreased by hydromorphone. Hydromorphone causes a reduction in motility associated with an increase in tone in the antrum of the stomach and duodenum. Digestion of food in the small intestine is delayed and propulsive contractions are decreased. Propulsive peristaltic waves in the colon are decreased, while tone may be increased to the point of spasm. The end result is constipation. Hydromorphone also can cause an increase in biliary tract pressure as a result of spasm of the sphincter of Oddi.

Effects on the Cardiovascular System

Hydromorphone produces peripheral vasodilation which may result in orthostatic hypotension or syncope. Release of histamine may be induced by hydromorphone and can contribute to opioid-induced hypotension. Manifestations of histamine release or peripheral vasodilation may include pruritus, flushing, red eyes, and sweating.

Effects on the Endocrine System

Opioids inhibit the secretion of ACTH, cortisol, and luteinizing hormone (LH) in humans. They also stimulate prolactin, growth hormone (GH) secretion, and pancreatic secretion of insulin and glucagon.

Effects on the Immune System

Opioids have been shown to have a variety of effects on components of the immune system in in vitro and animal models. The clinical significance of these findings is unknown. Overall, the effects of opioids appear to be modestly immunosuppressive.



EXALGO is an extended-release formulation of hydromorphone that produces a gradual increase in hydromorphone concentrations. Following a single-dose administration of EXALGO, plasma concentrations gradually increase over 6 to 8 hours, and thereafter concentrations are sustained for approximately 18 to 24 hours post-dose. The median Tmax values ranged from 12 to 16 hours. The mean half-life was approximately 11 hours, ranging from 8 to 15 hours in most individual subjects. Linear pharmacokinetics has been demonstrated for EXALGO over the dose range 8 to 64 mg, with a dose-proportional increase in Cmax and overall exposure (AUC0-∞) (see Table 4). Steady-state plasma concentrations are approximately twice those observed following the first dose, and steady state is reached after 3 to 4 days of once-daily dosing of EXALGO. At steady state, EXALGO given once daily maintained hydromorphone plasma concentrations within the same concentration range as the immediate-release tablet given 4 times daily at the same total daily dose and diminished the fluctuations between peak and trough concentrations seen with the immediate-release tablet (see Figure 1). The bioavailability of EXALGO once daily and immediate-release hydromorphone four times daily in adults is comparable, as presented in Table 4.

Figure 1: Mean Steady-State Plasma Concentration Profile

Mean Steady-State Plasma Concentration Profile - Illustration

Table 4: Mean (±SD) EXALGO Pharmacokinetic Parameters

Regimen Dosage Tmax* (hrs) Cmax (ng/mL) AUC (ng-hr/mL) T½ (hr)
Single Dose
(N = 31)
8 mg 12 (4-30) 0.93 (1.01) 18.1 (5.8) 10.6 (4.3)
16 mg 16 (6-30) 1.69 (0.78) 36.5 (11.3) 10.3 (2.4)
32 mg 16 (4-24) 3.25 (1.37) 72.2 (24.3) 11.0 (3.2)
64 mg 16 (6-30) 6.61 (1.75) 156.0 (30.6) 10.9 (3.8)
Multiple Dose†
(N = 29)
16 mg q24h 12 (6-24) 3.54 (0.96)‡ 57.6 (16.3) NA
IR 4 mg q6h 0.75 (0.5-2) 5.28 (1.37)§ 54.8 (14.8) NA
NA = not applicable
* Median (range) reported for Tmax
† Steady-state results on Day 5 (0-24 hours)
‡ Cmin 2.15 (0.87) ng/mL
§Cmin 1.47 (0.42) ng/mL

Food Effect

The pharmacokinetics of EXALGO are not affected by food as indicated by bioequivalence when administered under fed and fasting conditions. Therefore, EXALGO may be administered without regard to meals. When a 16 mg dose of EXALGO was administered to healthy volunteers immediately following a high-fat meal, the median time to Cmax (Tmax) was minimally affected by the high-fat meal occurring at 16 hours compared to 18 hours while fasting.


Following intravenous administration of hydromorphone to healthy volunteers, the mean volume of distribution was 2.9 (±1.3) L/kg, suggesting extensive tissue distribution. The mean extent of binding of hydromorphone to human plasma proteins was determined to be 27% in an in vitro study.


After oral administration of an immediate-release formulation, hydromorphone undergoes extensive first-pass metabolism and is metabolized primarily in the liver by glucuronidation to hydromorphone-3glucuronide, which follows a similar time course to hydromorphone in plasma. Exposure to the glucuronide metabolite is 35 to 40 times higher than exposure to the parent drug. In vitro data suggest that hydromorphone in clinically relevant concentrations has minimal potential to inhibit the activity of human hepatic CYP450 enzymes including CYP1A2, 2C9, 2C19, 2D6, 3A4, and 4A11.


Approximately 75% of the administered dose is excreted in urine. Most of the administered hydromorphone dose is excreted as metabolites. Approximately 7% and 1% of the dose are excreted as unchanged hydromorphone in urine and feces, respectively.

Specific Populations

Geriatric Patients

Population PK analysis performed on plasma concentration data from 407 osteoarthritis (OA) patients using EXALGO showed an average 11% increase in hydromorphone AUC in the elderly group (65 to 75 years of age) when compared to the younger age group (less than or equal to 65 years of age).

Pediatric Patients

The pharmacokinetics of EXALGO were not evaluated in a pediatric population.


Females appeared to have approximately 10% higher mean systemic exposure in terms of Cmax and AUC values.


The effect of race on EXALGO pharmacokinetics has not been studied.

Hepatic Impairment

In a study that used a single 4 mg oral dose of immediate-release hydromorphone tablets, four-fold increases in plasma levels of hydromorphone (Cmax and AUC0-∞) were observed in patients with moderate hepatic impairment (Child-Pugh Group B). Pharmacokinetics of hydromorphone in severe hepatic impairment patients has not been studied. Further increase in Cmax and AUC0-∞ of hydromorphone in this group is expected. Start patients with moderate hepatic impairment on 25% of the usual dose of EXALGO and closely monitor for respiratory and central nervous system depression during dose titration. Consider alternate analgesic therapy for patients with severe hepatic impairment [see DOSAGE AND ADMINISTRATION and Specific Populations].

Renal Impairment

Renal impairment affected the pharmacokinetics of hydromorphone and its metabolites following administration of a single 4 mg dose of immediate-release tablets. The effects of renal impairment on hydromorphone pharmacokinetics were two-fold and four-fold increases in plasma levels of hydromorphone (Cmax and AUC0-48h) in moderate (CLcr = 40 to 60 mL/min) and severe (CLcr < 30 mL/min) impairment, respectively. In addition, in patients with severe renal impairment hydromorphone appeared to be more slowly eliminated with longer terminal elimination half-life (40 hr) compared to subjects with normal renal function (15 hr). Start patients with moderate renal impairment on 50% of the usual EXALGO dose for patients with normal renal function and closely monitor for respiratory and central nervous system depression during dose titration. As EXALGO is only intended for once-daily administration, consider use of an alternate analgesic that may permit more flexibility with the dosing interval in patients with severe renal impairment [see DOSAGE AND ADMINISTRATION and Use In Specific Populations].

Drug Interaction/Alcohol Interaction

An in vivo study examined the effect of alcohol (40%, 20%, 4% and 0%) on the bioavailability of a single dose of 16 mg of EXALGO in healthy, fasted or fed volunteers. The results showed that the hydromorphone mean AUC0-∞ was 5% higher and 4% lower (not statistically significant) in the fasted and fed groups respectively after co-administration of 240 mL of 40% alcohol. The AUC0-∞ was similarly unaffected in subjects following the co-administration of EXALGO and alcohol (240 mL of 20% or 4% alcohol).

The change in geometric mean Cmax with concomitant administration of alcohol and EXALGO ranged from an increase of 10% to 31% across all conditions studied. The change in mean Cmax was greater in the fasted group of subjects. Following concomitant administration of 240 mL of 40% alcohol while fasting, the mean Cmax increased by 37% and up to 151% in an individual subject. Following the concomitant administration of 240 mL of 20% alcohol while fasting, the mean Cmax increased by 35% and up to 139% in an individual subject. Following the concomitant administration of 240 mL of 4% alcohol while fasting, the mean Cmax increased by 19% on average and as much as 73% for an individual subject. The range of median Tmax for the fed and fasted treatments with 4%, 20% and 40% alcohol was 12 to 16 hours compared to 16 hours for the 0% alcohol treatments.

Clinical Studies

EXALGO was investigated in a double-blind, placebo-controlled, randomized withdrawal study in opioid tolerant patients with moderate-to-severe low back pain. Patients were considered opioid tolerant if they were currently on opioid therapy that was ≥ 60 mg/day of oral morphine equivalent for at least 2 months prior to screening. Patients entered an open-label conversion and titration phase with EXALGO, were converted to a starting dose that was approximately 75% of their total daily morphine equivalent dose, and were dosed once daily until adequate pain control was achieved while exhibiting tolerable side effects. Supplemental immediate-release hydromorphone tablets were allowed throughout the study. Patients who achieved a stable dose entered a 12-week, double-blind, placebo-controlled, randomized treatment phase. Mean daily dose at randomization was 37.8 mg/day (range of 12 mg/day to 64 mg/day). Fifty-eight (58) percent of patients were successfully titrated to a stable dose of EXALGO during the open-label conversion and titration phase.

During the double-blind treatment phase, patients randomized to EXALGO continued with the stable dose achieved in the conversion and titration phase of the study. Patients randomized to placebo received, in a blinded manner, EXALGO and matching placebo in doses tapering from the stable dose achieved in conversion and titration. During the taper down period, patients were allowed immediate-release hydromorphone tablets as supplemental analgesia to minimize opioid withdrawal symptoms in placebo patients. After the taper period, the number of immediate-release hydromorphone tablets was limited to two tablets per day. Forty-nine (49) percent of patients treated with EXALGO and 33% of patients treated with placebo completed the 12-week treatment period.

EXALGO provided superior analgesia compared to placebo. There was a significant difference between the mean changes from Baseline to W eek 12 or Final Visit in average weekly pain intensity Numeric Rating Scale (NRS) scores obtained from patient diaries between the two groups. The proportion of patients with various degrees of improvement from screening to Week 12 or Final Visit is shown in Figure 2. For this analysis, patients who discontinued treatment for any reason prior to Week 12 were assigned a value of zero improvement.

Figure 2: Percent Reduction in Average Pain Intensity from Screening to Week 12 or Final Visit

Percent Reduction in Average Pain Intensity from Screening to Week 12 or Final Visit - Illustration

Last reviewed on RxList: 6/19/2015
This monograph has been modified to include the generic and brand name in many instances.

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