Malignant Hyperthermia

Article Author:
Stacey Watt
Article Editor:
Steve Bhimji
10/6/2017 1:06:32 PM
PubMed Link:
Malignant Hyperthermia


Malignant Hyperthermia (MH) is a hereditary disorder of skeletal muscle that classically presents as a hypermetabolic response to halogenated anesthetic gasses and/or the depolarizing muscle relaxant succinylcholine. 


Patients who are genetically susceptible can have an MH reaction in response to triggering agents such as halogenated anesthetic gasses and/or succinylcholine and more rarely to stressors such as vigorous exercise and heat exposure.


The exact incidence of MH is unknown.  Studies demonstrate that MH occurs in about 1:100,000 in adults and 1:30,000 in children.  The incidence of MH varies based upon geographic region. There are concentrations of MH families present in Wisconsin and the upper Midwest. The mortality is 3% to 5%, even when properly treated.


MH is a dominantly inherited disorder that is characterized by skeletal muscle hypermetabolism following exposure to halogenated anesthetics, depolarizing muscle relaxants such as succinylcholine, or, occasionally, physiologic stressors. The gene for the ryanodine receptor RYR1 is the primary site for mutations linked with MH, but other genetic loci have been identified, such as CACNA1S and STAC3, as causative for MH. 

The uncontrolled release of calcium from skeletal muscle sarcoplasmic reticulum leads to sustained muscle contraction. The sustained muscle contraction produces a depletion of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), and dramatically increases oxygen consumption and the production of carbon dioxide and heat. The depletion of ATP stores leads to the membrane integrity failure and cell content leakages such as potassium, creatinine kinase, and myoglobin into the circulation.

History and Physical

Signs and symptoms of MH include tachycardia, tachypnea, hypoxemia, hypercarbia, metabolic and respiratory acidosis, hyperkalemia, cardiac dysrhythmias, hypotension, skeletal muscle rigidity, and hyperthermia.  The earliest signs of MH are usually hypercarbia and tachycardia due to elevated carbon dioxide production. Fulminant MH reactions may have only a few of the usual signs, and a high index of suspicion of MH is required to effect a timely and correct diagnosis and treatment. MH can occur at any time during the intraoperative and postoperative period.

Susceptible patients can exhibit masseter muscle spasm. If signs of hypermetabolism such as metabolic and respiratory acidosis or an elevation in body temperature accompany the muscle spasm, a diagnosis of MH must be considered.


The gold standard in the laboratory diagnosis of MH is the caffeine halothane contracture test (CHCT), although genetic testing is rapidly advancing and may one day replace the muscle biopsy. The CHCT involves exposing a sample of live muscle fibers to halothane and caffeine to determine the muscle response to halogenated anesthetics. Genetic testing for mutations of the RYR1 or other associated genetic variants associated with MH is becoming increasing more value as the testing improves. 

Treatment / Management

The critical element in the treatment of MH is immediate dantrolene administration. Once an MH episode is suspected, all triggering agents must be discontinued and the patient hyperventilated with 100% oxygen with non-triggering anesthetic agents utilized for patient care and surgery should be ended as soon as possible. Dantrolene in a dose of 2.5 mg/kg must be administered intravenously as soon as possible, up to a maximum dose of 10mg/kg until the reaction subsides. In addition to administering dantrolene, attention also must be paid to correct hyperthermia, acidosis, hypoxemia, arrhythmias and preserving renal function. Arrhythmias can be treated with antiarrhythmics such as lidocaine, and renal function can be protected from possible acute tubular necrosis (due to precipitation of released myoglobin from the skeletal muscles) by maintaining a urine flow of at least 2 ml/kg/hr with furosemide.

After the patient has been stabilized, he or she must be taken to the intensive care unit for at least 24 hours for appropriate monitoring and to watch for signs of recrudescence. Patients at highest risk for recrudescence are those with a large muscle mass or who have undergone at least 150 minutes of anesthetic exposure before triggering.  

Pearls and Other Issues


Dantrolene works by inhibiting calcium ion release from the sarcoplasmic reticulum.  Its mechanism of action is through antagonizing the ryanodine receptors which lessens the excitation-contraction coupling of muscle cells.  

Dantrolene is currently the only specific medication used for treating an MH crisis. Dantrolene is available as two different formulations: Dantrium/Revonto and Dantrolene Sodium/Ryanodex. These two medications differ in the amount of sterile water required to reconstitute each vial and the concentration of dantrolene present within each vial. Dantrium/Revonto is available in 20 mg vials that must be reconstituted with 60 mL of sterile water per vial. Dantrolene Sodium/Ryanodex is available in 250 mg vials that must be reconstituted with 5 mL of sterile water per vial.  Regardless of which formulation of dantrolene administered, a dose of 2.5 mg/kg is recommended to treat an MH episode.  

Keep in mind that additional doses of dantrolene might be necessary to adequately treat a MH triggering event, and a dose of 1 mg/kg every 4 to 6 hours is recommended for the first 24 to 48 hours after an episode of MH.

All facilities where MH triggering anesthetics are administered are recommended to stock a minimum of 36 vials of Dantrium/Revonto or 3 vials of Dantrolene Sodium/Ryanodex along with other medications and rescue equipment needed to treat an MH crisis.   

MH link to strenuous exercise, heat exposure or other causes of elevated body temperature:

MH susceptible patients are found to experience a metabolic crisis without exposure to triggering agents.  Exposure of these patients to strenuous exercise, heat exposure, or high internal body temperatures (e.g., infections) may precipitate this crisis.  Research is currently underway to evaluate this possible link.

Other Issues:

Patients and their families should be referred to the Malignant Hyperthermia Association of the United States (MHAUS) for information about this disorder and to receive follow-up from specialists in this area.  

Information can be located on the website, or they can be reached by e-mail for questions at

Hotline Information:

MHAUS can be contacted at 1-800-644-9737 or outside the United States at 001-209-417-3722. 

North American MH Registry:

The North American MH Registry of the Malignant Hyperthermia Association of the United States (MHAUS) is a database of information about patients and their families that have experienced MH episodes. Healthcare providers are encouraged to report MH and MH-like episodes to the registry.  Information on how to contact the registry can be found on the MHAUS website at