Delayed Muscular Rigidity and Respiratory Depression Following Fentanyl Anesthesia

Joseph M. Klausner, Joseph Caspi, Shlomo Lelcuk, Aaron Khazam, Gideon Marin, Herbert B. Hechtman, Roland R. Rozin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


A delayed effect of fentanyl used for anesthesia may be respiratory distress several hours after surgery. The findings are muscular rigidity, fall in chest wall compliance, hypoventilation, respiratory acidosis, and hypotension. In the past, to our knowledge, this complication was exclusively reported in patients undergoing cardiac surgery, when large fentanyl dosages are employed. This article describes three general surgical patients in whom respiratory distress developed three to five hours following colon surgery when a moderate dose of fentanyl citrate, 55 to 75 μg/kg, was used. Initially, all patients had a normal recovery from anesthesia. Later, respiratory distress was successfully treated with a fentanyl antagonist and ventilatory assistance. This delayed toxic phenomenon is thought to be due to the reentry of fentanyl into plasma from deposits in adipose tissue, muscle, and the gastrointestinal tract, leading to a secondary rise in the plasma concentration. It is more likely to be encountered when hypothermia, rewarming, and acidosis are present in the postoperative period. This life-threatening complication is treacherous, since it may occur when the patient has been transferred to the surgical ward and is less closely monitored.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)66-67
Number of pages2
JournalArchives of Surgery
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1988
Externally publishedYes


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