Noradrenergic mechanisms in fentanyl-mediated rapid death explain failure of naloxone in the opioid crisis

Randy Torralva, Aaron Janowsky

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

65 Scopus citations


In December 2018, the Centers for Disease Control declared fentanyl the deadliest drug in America. Opioid overdose is the single greatest cause of death in the United States adult population (ages 18–50), and fentanyl and its analogs [fentanyl/ fentanyl analogs (F/FAs)] are currently involved in .50% of these deaths. Anesthesiologists in the United States were introduced to fentanyl in the early 1970s when it revolutionized surgical anesthesia by combining profound analgesia with hemodynamic stability. However, they quickly had to master its unique side effect. F/FAs can produce profound rigidity in the diaphragm, chest wall and upper airway within an extremely narrow dosing range. This clinical effect was called wooden chest syndrome (WCS) by anesthesiologists and is not commonly known outside of anesthesiology or to clinicians or researchers in addiction research/medicine. WCS is almost routinely fatal without expert airway management. This review provides relevant clinical human pharmacology and animal data demonstrating that the significant increase in the number of F/FA-induced deaths may involve a-adrenergic and cholinergic receptor–mediated mechanical failure of the respiratory and cardiovascular systems with rapid development of rigidity and airway closure. Although morphine and its prodrug, heroin, can cause mild rigidity in abdominal muscles at high doses, neither presents with the distinct and rapid respiratory failure seen with F/FA-induced WCS, separating F/FA overdose from the slower onset of respiratory depression caused by morphine-derived alkaloids. This distinction has significant consequences for the design and implementation of new pharmacologic strategies to effectively prevent F/FA-induced death. SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT Deaths from fentanyl and F/FAs are increasing in spite of availability and awareness of the opioid reversal drug naloxone. This article reviews literature suggesting that naloxone may be ineffective against centrally mediated noradrenergic and cholinergic effects of F/FAs, which clinically manifest as severe muscle rigidity and airway compromise (e.g., wooden chest syndrome) that is rapid and distinct from respiratory depression seen with morphine-derived alkaloids. A physiologic model is proposed and implications for new drug development and treatment are discussed.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)453-475
Number of pages23
JournalJournal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2019

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Molecular Medicine
  • Pharmacology


Dive into the research topics of 'Noradrenergic mechanisms in fentanyl-mediated rapid death explain failure of naloxone in the opioid crisis'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this