Sympathetic nervous system "switch off" with severe hypothermia

Crit Care Med. 1983 Sep;11(9):677-80. doi: 10.1097/00003246-198309000-00001.


Hypothermia occurs frequently in the critically ill patient, yet little is known about the endogenous catecholamine response to this stress. To study this problem, we measured heart rate (HR), mean arterial blood pressure (MAP), and plasma levels of norepinephrine (NE) and epinephrine (Epi) in subhuman primates (baboons) during progressive hypothermia from 37 degrees to 29 degrees C and then during rewarming to 37 degrees C. As the core temperature decreased from 37 degrees to 33 degrees C, HR and MAP increased significantly (p less than 0.05), but as core temperature further decreased from 33 degrees to 29 degrees C, the HR and MAP fell to prehypothermic levels. Plasma concentrations of NE and Epi increased significantly (p less than 0.01) as core temperature fell from 37 degrees to 31 degrees C, but as core temperature dropped from 31 degrees to 29 degrees C, plasma NE and Epi levels decreased towards prehypothermic concentrations. These findings indicate that the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) responds quickly to hypothermia but may be "switched off" at a threshold temperature of about 29 degrees C. We speculate that hypotensive patients with temperatures less than or equal to 29 degrees C may benefit from infusions of exogenous catecholamines, especially if there have been only minimal benefits achieved with conventional therapy such as fluids, and an increase in ambient temperature.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Blood Pressure
  • Body Temperature
  • Epinephrine / blood
  • Heart Rate
  • Hypothermia / physiopathology*
  • Male
  • Norepinephrine / blood
  • Papio
  • Sympathetic Nervous System / physiopathology*


  • Norepinephrine
  • Epinephrine