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What is Dantrolene?

By Marlene Garcia
Updated May 17, 2024
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Dantrolene is a medication used to treat multiple sclerosis (MS), cerebral palsy, and spinal cord injuries that cause cramps, muscle stiffness, and pain. This drug is also prescribed to treat patients with abnormally high fevers. Dantrolene is vital in operating rooms, where it can counteract an episode of malignant hyperthermia, a life-threatening complication of anesthesia that provokes a severe spike in metabolism causing death if not immediately treated.

Before the advent of the medication, patients susceptible to malignant hypothermia routinely died during major or minor surgical procedures. Anesthesia administered to people with a genetic predisposition to the condition could cause the muscles to tighten and an extremely high fever. If dantrolene is not given quickly, the patient can suffer heart and organ failure, leading to death.

Operating rooms and surgery centers routinely keep the drug on hand and monitor the patient’s temperature and the oxygen level in the blood when anesthesia is used. The first hour following signs of malignant hyperthermia is also considered a critical period that requires constant monitoring. Doses of dantrolene typically continue for several days after surgery when malignant hypothermia is present.

Its use in cases of multiple sclerosis might help reduce spasms linked to the disease. Multiple sclerosis is a central nervous system disorder that affects the spinal cord, brain, and optic nerves. The patient may experience numbness of the limbs in minor cases, or paralysis and blindness if the disease is severe.

Research has found that multiple sclerosis occurs more often in areas farther from the equator. This discovery points to a possible environmental factor that may weaken the immune system, especially in connection with the amount of vitamin D from sunlight. Studies show if a person moves from a high-risk area to a region closer to the equator before he or she reaches 15 years old, the risk of getting MS may diminish.

Cerebral palsy is a birth defect that causes muscle weakness and spasms that can be treated with dantrolene. The medication might help the patient control jerky movements of the limbs and relax muscles that become stiff. Depending on the part of the brain affected, cerebral palsy can prevent the patient from walking, talking, or eating. It might cause spasms in the arms, legs, or all four limbs.

The most serious risk of long-term use of dantrolene is liver damage, and the risk increases if high doses are necessary to control muscle cramps or pain. Women and people over the age of 35 face a higher risk of liver failure while taking the drug. Regular liver testing is commonly conducted when patients are prescribed dantrolene for a medical condition.

Other side effects include dizziness, diarrhea, fatigue, and nausea. These symptoms often go away once the patient’s body adapts to the medication, typically in several days. Serious side effects are considered rare, but may include vision changes, rapid heartbeat, headache, and drooling. Dantrolene may result in adverse reactions with medication used for other conditions.

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