Mechanisms whereby propofol mediates peripheral vasodilation in humans. Sympathoinhibition or direct vascular relaxation?

Anesthesiology. 1997 Jan;86(1):64-72. doi: 10.1097/00000542-199701000-00010.


Background: Anesthetic induction and maintenance with propofol are associated with decreased blood pressure that is, in part, due to decreased peripheral resistance. Several possible mechanisms whereby propofol could reduce peripheral resistance include a direct action of propofol on vascular smooth muscle, an inhibition of sympathetic activity to the vasculature, or both. This study examined these two possibilities in humans by measuring the forearm vascular responses to infusions of propofol into the brachial artery (study 1) and by determining the forearm arterial and venous responses to systemic (intravenous) infusions of propofol after sympathetic denervation of the forearm by stellate blockade (study 2).

Methods: Bilateral forearm venous occlusion plethysmography was used to examine forearm vascular resistance (FVR) and forearm vein compliance (FVC). Study 1 used infusion of intralipid (time control) and propofol at rates between 83 and 664 micrograms/min into the brachial artery of 11 conscious persons and compared responses to arterial infusions of sodium nitroprusside (SNP) at 0.3, 3.0, and 10 micrograms/min. Venous blood from the infusion arm was assayed for plasma propofol concentrations. In study 2, after left stellate block (12 ml 0.25% bupivacaine + 1% lidocaine), six participants were anesthetized and maintained with propofol infusions of 125 and 200 Simultaneous right forearm (unblocked) blood flow dynamics served as the time control. In three additional conscious participants, intrabrachial artery infusions of SNP and nitroglycerin, both at 10 micrograms/min, were performed before and after stellate blockade of the left forearm to determine whether the sympathetically denervated forearm vessels could dilate beyond the level produced by denervation alone.

Results: In study 1, infusion of intralipid or propofol into the brachial artery did not change FVR or FVC. Sodium nitroprusside significantly decreased FVR in a dose-dependent manner by 22 +/- 5%, 65 +/- 3%, and 78 +/- 2% (mean +/- SEM) but did not change FVC. During the incremental propofol infusions, plasma propofol concentrations increased from 0.2 to 10.1 micrograms/ml and averaged 7.4 +/- 1.1 micrograms/ml during the highest infusion rate. In study 2, stellate ganglion blockade decreased FVR by 50 +/- 6% and increased FVC by 58 +/- 10%. Propofol anesthesia at 125 and 200 progressively reduced mean arterial pressure. In the arm with sympathetic denervation, FVR and FVC showed no further changes during propofol anesthesia, whereas in the control arm FVR significantly decreased by 41 +/- 9% and 42 +/- 7%, and FVC increased significantly by 89 +/- 27% and 85 +/- 32% during 125 and 200 infusions of propofol, respectively. In the three additional conscious participants, intraarterial infusion of SNP and nitroglycerin (TNG) after the stellate blockade resulted in a further decrease of FVR and a further increase of FVC.

Conclusions: In contrast to SNP infusions, propofol infusions into the brachial artery of conscious persons caused no significant vascular responses, despite the presence of therapeutic plasma concentrations of propofol within the forearm. The effects of propofol anesthesia on FVR and FVC are similar to the effects of sympathetic denervation by stellate ganglion blockade. Thus the peripheral vascular actions of propofol appear to be due primarily to an inhibition of sympathetic vasoconstrictor nerve activity.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Anesthetics, Intravenous / pharmacology*
  • Brachial Artery
  • Female
  • Forearm / blood supply
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Propofol / blood
  • Propofol / pharmacology*
  • Stellate Ganglion / drug effects
  • Sympathetic Nervous System / drug effects
  • Vascular Resistance / drug effects
  • Vasodilation / drug effects*
  • Vasodilator Agents / pharmacology


  • Anesthetics, Intravenous
  • Vasodilator Agents
  • Propofol