Approach to neuromuscular disorders in the intensive care unit

Neurocrit Care. 2005;3(3):195-212. doi: 10.1385/NCC:3:3:195.


Neuromuscular disorders increasingly are recognized as a complication in patients in the intensive care unit (ICU) and represent a common cause of prolonged ventilator dependency. The distinct syndromes of critical illness myopathy, prolonged neuromuscular blockade, and critical illness polyneuropathy (CIP) may arise as a consequence of sepsis, multi-organ failure, and exposure to various medications--notably, intravenous corticosteroids and neuromuscular blocking agents--but the pathophysiology of these disorders remains poorly understood. More than one syndrome may occur simultaneously, and the distinctions may be difficult in a particular patient, but a specific diagnosis usually can be established after careful clinical, electrodiagnostic, and, when necessary, histological evaluation. For example, asthmatics requiring treatment with corticosteroids and neuromuscular blocking agents may develop an acute myopathy characterized by generalized weakness, preserved eye movements, elevated creatine kinase levels, and myopathic motor units on electromyography (EMG). Muscle biopsy demonstrates distinctive features of thick (myosin) filament loss on ultrastructural studies. Conversely, those with a prolonged ICU course that is complicated by episodes of sepsis with failure to wean from the ventilator, distal or generalized flaccid limb weakness, and areflexia probably have CIP. EMG in these patients demonstrates reduced or absent motor and sensory potentials with neurogenic motor units. Prolonged neuromuscular blockade most commonly occurs in patients with renal failure who have received prolonged infusions of neuromuscular blockers. There is severe flaccid, areflexic paralysis with normal sensation, facial weakness, and ophthalmoparesis that persists for days or weeks after the neuromuscular blockers have been discontinued. Repetitive nerve stimulation shows a decrement of the compound muscle action potential and, in most cases, establishes a disorder of neuromuscular transmission. With the recent epidemic of West Nile virus infection, a clinical syndrome of acute flaccid paralysis with several features indistinguishable from poliomyelitis has emerged. This article critically examines the clinical, electrophysiological, and pathological features of these and other acute neuromuscular syndromes that arise in the context of ICU care and summarizes the current understanding of the pathophysiology and treatment of these disorders.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Critical Illness
  • Diagnosis, Differential
  • Electrophysiology
  • Humans
  • Intensive Care Units*
  • Motor Neuron Disease / diagnosis
  • Motor Neuron Disease / physiopathology
  • Motor Neuron Disease / therapy
  • Neuromuscular Diseases / diagnosis*
  • Neuromuscular Diseases / physiopathology*
  • Neuromuscular Diseases / therapy
  • Neuromuscular Junction / pathology
  • Peripheral Nervous System Diseases / diagnosis
  • Peripheral Nervous System Diseases / physiopathology
  • Peripheral Nervous System Diseases / therapy