Adverse effects of neuromuscular blockers and their antagonists

Middle East J Anaesthesiol. 1998 Jun;14(5):341-73.


Among all the drugs used for general anesthesia, neuromuscular blockers appear to play a prominent role in the incidence of severe adverse reactions. It now seems likely that most serious adverse drug reactions occurring during anesthesia are immunological in type. The frequency of life-threatening anaphylactic or anaphylactoid reactions occurring during anesthesia has been estimated to be between 1 in 1000 and 1 in 25,000 anesthetic procedures, with the neuromuscular blockers being involved in 80% of cases. The mortality from such serious reactions is reported to be in the range of 3.4 to 6%. The highly immunogenic drug, suxamethonium chloride (succinylcholine), was found to be the most hazardous agent. Drug-specific immunoglobulin E antibodies to suxamethonium chloride and other neuromuscular blockers have been demonstrated. This sensitivity to neuromuscular blockers seems to be a long-lasting phenomenon. During anesthesia, the clinical features of an allergic reaction are often masked. Tachycardia and circulatory collapse may be the only signs of an allergic reaction, and they are easily misdiagnosed. Bronchospasm is reported to be present in about 40% of cases. Successful management of these patients includes stabilisation during the acute reaction and avoidance of future reactions. The latter is based on the identification of the causative drug and potentially cross-reacting compounds. The use of suxamethonium chloride is associated with many other adverse effects, such as fasciculations, myalgia, potassium release, changes in the heart rate, increases in intragastric and intraocular pressures, and malignant hyperthermia. Because of the dangers of hyperkalemic cardiac arrest suxamethonium chloride administration in children with unrecognised muscular dystrophy, there have now been moves to limit the use of this drug in children. Although neuromuscular blockers are designed to specifically block nicotinic cholinergic receptors at the neuromuscular junction, many bind to muscarinic cholinergic receptors on ganglia and smooth muscle, and alter parasympathetically mediated heart rate and airway calibre. Most benzylisoquinolinium muscle relaxants can induce histamine release, especially when they are administered rapidly, which can lead to disturbances of cardiovascular function. In addition, nondepolarising neuromuscular blockers have been implicated in causing generalised weakness following their long term administration to patients on an intensive care unit. The problem with these adverse drug reactions is their upredictable nature. Therefore, prompt recognition with appropriate therapy can help to improve the outcome.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Anaphylaxis / chemically induced
  • Anaphylaxis / therapy
  • Antibodies / analysis
  • Bronchial Spasm / chemically induced
  • Cause of Death
  • Child
  • Drug Hypersensitivity / etiology
  • Drug Hypersensitivity / therapy
  • Humans
  • Immunoglobulin E / analysis
  • Incidence
  • Neuromuscular Blocking Agents / adverse effects*
  • Neuromuscular Blocking Agents / antagonists & inhibitors
  • Neuromuscular Blocking Agents / immunology
  • Neuromuscular Depolarizing Agents / adverse effects
  • Neuromuscular Depolarizing Agents / immunology
  • Neuromuscular Nondepolarizing Agents / adverse effects
  • Receptors, Muscarinic / drug effects
  • Receptors, Nicotinic / drug effects
  • Shock / chemically induced
  • Succinylcholine / adverse effects
  • Succinylcholine / immunology
  • Tachycardia / chemically induced


  • Antibodies
  • Neuromuscular Blocking Agents
  • Neuromuscular Depolarizing Agents
  • Neuromuscular Nondepolarizing Agents
  • Receptors, Muscarinic
  • Receptors, Nicotinic
  • Immunoglobulin E
  • Succinylcholine