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Opioid comparison
Drug Relative Potency[1] Nonionized Fraction Protein Binding Lipid Solubility[2]
Morphine 1 ++ ++ ++
Meperidine 0.1 + +++ ++
Hydromorphone 10
Alfentanil 10–25 ++++ ++++ +++
Fentanyl 75–125 + +++ ++++
Remifentanil 250 +++ +++ ++
Sufentanil 500–1000 ++ ++++ ++++
Etorphine 1000–3000

Opioids bind to specific opioid receptors in the nervous system and other tissues. There are three principal classes of opioid receptors, μ, κ, δ (mu, kappa, and delta), although up to seventeen have been reported, and include the ε, ι, λ, and ζ (Epsilon, Iota, Lambda and Zeta) receptors. Conversely, σ (Sigma) receptors are no longer considered to be opioid receptors because: their activation is not reversed by the opioid inverse-agonist naloxone, they do not exhibit high-affinity binding for classical opioids, and they are stereoselective for dextro-rotatory isomers while the other opioid receptors are stereo-selective for laevo-rotatory isomers. In addition, there are three subtypes of μ-receptor: μ1 and μ2, and the newly discovered μ3. Another receptor of clinical importance is the opioid-receptor-like receptor 1 (ORL1), which is involved in pain responses as well as having a major role in the development of tolerance to μ-opioid agonists used as analgesics. These are all G-protein coupled receptors acting on GABAergic neurotransmission.

The pharmacodynamic response to an opioid depends upon the receptor to which it binds, its affinity for that receptor, and whether the opioid is an agonist or an antagonist. For example, the supraspinal analgesic properties of the opioid agonist morphine are mediated by activation of the μ1 receptor; respiratory depression and physical dependence by the μ2 receptor; and sedation and spinal analgesia by the κ receptorTemplate:Citation needed. Each group of opioid receptors elicits a distinct set of neurological responses, with the receptor subtypes (such as μ1 and μ2 for example) providing even more [measurably] specific responses. Unique to each opioid is its distinct binding affinity to the various classes of opioid receptors (e.g. the μ, κ, and δ opioid receptors are activated at different magnitudes according to the specific receptor binding affinities of the opioid). For example, the opiate alkaloid morphine exhibits high-affinity binding to the μ-opioid receptor, while ketazocine exhibits high affinity to ĸ receptors. It is this combinatorial mechanism that allows for such a wide class of opioids and molecular designs to exist, each with its own unique effect profile. Their individual molecular structure is also responsible for their different duration of action, whereby metabolic breakdown (such as N-dealkylation) is responsible for opioid metabolism.