Myasthenia Gravis and Crisis: Evaluation and Management in the Emergency Department

J Emerg Med. 2017 Dec;53(6):843-853. doi: 10.1016/j.jemermed.2017.06.009. Epub 2017 Sep 12.


Background: Myasthenia gravis (MG) is an uncommon autoimmune disorder affecting the neuromuscular junction and manifesting as muscle weakness. A multitude of stressors can exacerbate MG. When symptoms are exacerbated, muscle weakness can be severe enough to result in respiratory failure, a condition known as myasthenic crisis (MC).

Objective: This review discusses risk factors, diagnosis, management, and iatrogenic avoidance of MC.

Discussion: MC can affect any age, ethnicity, or sex and can be precipitated with any stressor, infection being the most common. MC is a clinical diagnosis defined by respiratory failure caused by exacerbation of MG. Muscle weakness can involve any voluntary muscle. MC can be differentiated from other neuromuscular junction diseases by the presence of normal reflexes, normal sensation, lack of autonomic symptoms, lack of fasciculations, and worsening weakness with repetitive motion. Treatment should target the inciting event and airway support. All acetylcholinesterase inhibitors should be avoided in crisis, including edrophonium testing and corticosteroids initially. Respiratory support can begin with noninvasive positive-pressure ventilation, as this has been successful even in patients with bulbar weakness. If intubation is necessary, consider avoiding paralytics or use a reduced dose of nondepolarizing agents.

Conclusions: MC should be in the differential of any patient with muscular weakness and respiratory compromise. Emergency department management of MC should focus on ruling out infection and respiratory support. Strong consideration should be given to beginning with noninvasive positive-pressure ventilation for ventilatory support. Corticosteroids, depolarizing paralytics, and acetylcholinesterase inhibitors should be avoided in patients with MC in the emergency department.

Keywords: myasthenia gravis; myasthenic crisis; neurology; neuromuscular; respiratory; weakness.

MeSH terms

  • Airway Management / methods
  • Disease Management
  • Emergency Service, Hospital / organization & administration
  • Humans
  • Myasthenia Gravis / complications*
  • Myasthenia Gravis / physiopathology
  • Myasthenia Gravis / therapy*
  • Risk Factors