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What is malignant hyperthermia?

If you or a loved one plans to undergo surgery, it is crucial that you understand the risks of both the procedure and any drugs the surgical team will use to ensure your comfort before, during and after it. One such risk is malignant hyperthermia, which is an adverse reaction to certain types of anesthesia.

According to Mayo Clinic, malignant hyperthermia is a severe reaction to anesthetic drugs characterized by a dangerously high temperature, rapid heart rate, rigid muscles, muscle spasms and other symptoms. If not properly treated in a timely fashion, potentially fatal complications may arise.

Symptoms of malignant hyperthermia

Symptoms of malignant hyperthermia may arise either during surgery and shortly after receiving anesthesia or during the recovery phase. Regardless of when they begin, signs of the condition may include one or more of the following:

  • Rapid heart rate
  • Abnormal heart rhythm
  • Severe muscle spasms or rigidity
  • Shallow, rapid breathing and issues with low oxygen levels and high carbon dioxide
  • Excessive sweating
  • Dangerously high body temperature
  • Irregular, patchy skin color

Unfortunately, most people are unaware that they are susceptible to malignant hyperthermia until they receive a triggering drug. Moreover, some people do not have a serious reaction during the first exposure but are still at risk for a severe reaction during subsequent exposures.

Causes and risk factors of malignant hyperthermia

A genetic defect causes malignant hyperthermia susceptibility. In most cases, this defect is inherited from a parent who also had it. However, it is not inherited, it is the result of a genetic mutation. Given this information, your risk of malignant hyperthermia is higher if someone in your family has it, parent or not. You also have a higher risk if you or a close relative has a history of experiencing malignant hyperthermia during anesthesia; has a history of rhabdomyolysis, or muscle breakdown, or lives with a muscle disease or disorder.

Knowing your family history and communicating it with your health care team before surgery is key to preventing anesthesia-related complications. If you do experience malignant hyperthermia despite your efforts, consult with a medical malpractice lawyer.