Current Issue Previous Issues Published Ahead-of-Print CME Subjects Timely Topics Translations Podcasts For Authors Journal Info
Skip Navigation LinksHome > June 2004 - Volume 98 - Issue 6 > The Use of Dexmedetomidine to Facilitate Opioid and Benzodia...
Anesthesia & Analgesia:
doi: 10.1213/01.ANE.0000113547.34160.A5

The Use of Dexmedetomidine to Facilitate Opioid and Benzodiazepine Detoxification in an Infant

Finkel, Julia C. MD; Elrefai, Ahmed MD

Free Access
Article Outline
Collapse Box

Author Information

Department of Anesthesiology, Children's National Medical Center and George Washington University, Washington, DC

Accepted for publication December 3, 2003.

Address correspondence and reprint requests to Julia C. Finkel, MD, Department of Anesthesiology, Children's National Medical Center, 111 Michigan Ave., N.W., Washington, DC 20010. Address e-mail to

Collapse Box


Prolonged use of opioids and benzodiazepines for the care of critically ill infants and children can generate physical dependence. We present a case of an 8-mo-old infant with Hunter's syndrome who was maintained on very large doses of fentanyl and midazolam and who could not be weaned from these drugs by conventional taper. We used dexmedetomidine, an α2-adrenergic agonist, to facilitate opioid and benzodiazepine withdrawal. A processed electroencephalogram (Bispectral Index) was used to guide the titration of dexmedetomidine in this neurologically impaired infant. This is the first report of this drug being used in an infant to manage chemical dependence withdrawal.

The use of opioids and benzodiazepines for sedation is a mainstay of intensive care unit (ICU) patient care. The dependence that develops with long-term use of these drugs creates new problems for the patients and the ICU team directing their care. We present a case of an 8-mo-old infant with Hunter's syndrome who was maintained on very large doses of fentanyl and midazolam. He could not be weaned from these drugs by a conventional withdrawal taper technique, and dexmedetomidine was used.

Back to Top | Article Outline

Case Report

A 13.3-kg boy with Hunter's syndrome developed respiratory failure of unknown etiology that required mechanical ventilation from birth. In the neonatal ICU (NICU), he was intubated and mechanically ventilated over the next 6 mo while the cause for his respiratory failure was investigated. At age 7 mo, the diagnosis of Hunter's syndrome was verified, and the patient underwent a tracheostomy. Fentanyl 3370 μg/d and midazolam 270 mg/d were used to achieve adequate sedation. Attempts to slowly wean the sedatives by 5% yielded unacceptable agitation, tachycardia, and hypertension. To transfer the patient from the NICU, IV sedatives needed to be discontinued.

The Anesthesia Pain Service was consulted for evaluation of alternative methods for weaning the infant from opioid and benzodiazepine dependence. Methadone was not considered because of the infant's severely limited enteral intake. An acute detoxification was therefore attempted with dexmedetomidine to prevent an acute abstinence syndrome.

The baseline neurological impairment of the infant made it difficult to evaluate the depth of sedation. The infant was both blind and deaf and manifested 10–20 beats of clonus when touched. Because typical sedation scales implement auditory and tactile stimuli, a Bispectral Index score (BIS) (Aspect Systems, Newton, MA) was used to help guide the titration of the dexmedetomidine. The BIS monitor was placed 6 h before the midazolam and fentanyl infusions were stopped, to determine the baseline values occurring with adequately sedated behavior. On the basis of the observations made during this period, a target BIS value of 60–80 was used.

Immediately after the fentanyl and midazolam infusions were discontinued, the dexmedetomidine infusion was initiated with an initial loading dose of 1 μg/kg given over 10 min followed by a continuous rate of 0.2 to 0.7 μg · kg−1 · h−1 to keep the BIS within the targeted range. If the maximum rate of 0.7 μg · kg−1 · h−1 was reached and the BIS score was more than 80 or the arterial blood pressure was >20% of baseline, the initial dose could be repeated every 6 h. (This was needed on Days 2, 3, and 4 at least once a day.) The infusion was tapered off on Day 7. No rebound effects were noted hemodynamically or behaviorally during the taper. The patient manifested no agitation for the ensuing 2 wk and was transferred to a chronic care facility.

Back to Top | Article Outline


Dexmedetomidine, an α2-adrenergic agonist with an affinity for the α2 receptor 8 times more than that of clonidine, was used to facilitate acute benzodiazepine and opioid withdrawal in an infant (1). This was administered as a seven-day infusion to mitigate the hyperadrenergic state produced by acute benzodiazepine and opioid withdrawal. The advantage of dexmedetomidine in this setting is that it provides sedation, analgesia, and blunted sympathetic activity without significant respiratory depression (2–4).

There are limited reports of the use of dexmedetomidine in infants and children (5). We used the BIS monitor to guide the adequacy of sedation and the dose range of dexmedetomidine. The BIS monitor correlates with sedation scores and, thus, may be an effective sedation monitor for prolonged periods in sedated, mechanically ventilated NICU patients as well as in adult ICU patients (6–8). However, algorithms used in the BIS have been established in adult patients, and interpretation in neonates and infants should be made with caution. The BIS monitor was helpful in providing titration of the dexmedetomidine in this neurologically impaired patient.

The dexmedetomidine dose range implemented did not result in a decrease in heart rate or hypotension, as might be expected with the sympatholytic effect of the drug. The lack of anticipated hemodynamic effect in general may have been due to increased sympathetic tone secondary to the catecholamines present during the withdrawal process (9–11). An additional potential advantage of rapid detoxification in infants is the possibility of reducing the amount of developmental delay that is seen with chronic opioid administration in this population (12).

Whereas the use of α2 agonists for the amelioration of opioid withdrawal symptoms has been described (13), their use in mitigating benzodiazepine withdrawal symptoms is not established. Two recent reports (14,15) detail the use of dexmedetomidine in the successful management of adult patients with multiple substance dependencies, including opioids, benzodiazepines, and cocaine. Dexmedetomidine has the theoretical advantage of blunting the adrenergic response to benzodiazepine withdrawal, as well as a sedative and analgesic effect, which may serve to ameliorate the anxiety component of benzodiazepine withdrawal. It is unclear, however, whether dexmedetomidine has an effect on the convulsions precipitated by benzodiazepine withdrawal. Central α-adrenoreceptors mediate drug- and electroshock-induced seizure activity (16). Additionally, there is evidence that the cocaine seizure threshold is increased by dexmedetomidine, possibly via attenuation of the extracellular dopaminergic response to cocaine (17). The effect of dexmedetomidine on the seizure threshold during withdrawal from benzodiazepines has yet to be determined.

In summary, the use of dexmedetomidine for facilitating withdrawal from opioid and benzodiazepine dependence in critically ill infants and children needs to be further evaluated. The role of BIS monitoring in the management of acute detoxification should also be investigated.

Back to Top | Article Outline


1. Virtanen R, Savola JM, Saano V, Nyman L. Characterization of the selectivity, specificity and potency of medetomidine as an alpha 2-adrenoceptor agonist. Eur J Pharmacol 1988;150:9–14.

2. Guo TZ, Jiang JY, Buttermann AE, Maze M. Dexmedetomidine injection into the locus ceruleus produces antinociception. Anesthesiology 1996;84:873–81.

3. Ebert TJ, Hall JE, Barney JA, et al. The effects of increasing plasma concentrations of dexmedetomidine in humans. Anesthesiology 2000;93:382–94.

4. Arain SR, Ebert TJ. The efficacy, side effects, and recovery characteristics of dexmedetomidine versus propofol when used for intraoperative sedation. Anesth Analg 2002;95:461–6.

5. Tobias JD, Berkenbosch JW. Initial experience with dexmedetomidine in paediatric-aged patients. Paediatr Anaesth 2002;12:171–5.

6. McDermott NB, VanSickle T, Motas D, Friesen RH. Validation of the bispectral index monitor during conscious and deep sedation in children. Anesth Analg 2003;97:39–43.

7. Berkenbosch JW, Fichter CR, Tobias JD. The correlation of the bispectral index monitor with clinical sedation scores during mechanical ventilation in the pediatric intensive care unit. Anesth Analg 2002;94:506–11.

8. Triltsch AE, Welte M, von Homeyer P, et al. Bispectral index-guided sedation with dexmedetomidine in intensive care: a prospective, randomized, double blind, placebo-controlled phase II study. Crit Care Med 2002;30:1007–14.

9. Bloor BC, Ward DS, Belleville JP, Maze M. Effects of intravenous dexmedetomidine in humans. II. Hemodynamic changes. Anesthesiology 1992;77:1134–42.

10. Elman I, D'Ambra MN, Krause S, et al. Ultrarapid opioid detoxification: effects on cardiopulmonary physiology, stress hormones and clinical outcomes. Drug Alcohol Depend 2001;61:163–72.

11. Kienbaum P, Scherbaum N, Thurauf N, et al. Acute detoxification of opioid-addicted patients with naloxone during propofol or methohexital anesthesia: a comparison of withdrawal symptoms, neuroendocrine, metabolic, and cardiovascular patterns. Crit Care Med 2000;28:969–76.

12. Greenberg M. Ultrarapid opioid detoxification of two children with congenital heart disease. J Addict Dis 2000;19:53–8.

13. O'Connor PG, Kosten TR. Rapid and ultrarapid opioid detoxification techniques. JAMA 1998;279:229–34.

14. Multz AS. Prolonged dexmedetomidine infusion as an adjunct in treating sedation-induced withdrawal. Anesth Analg 2003;96:1054–5.

15. Maccioli GA. Dexmedetomidine to facilitate drug withdrawal. Anesthesiology 2003;98:575–7.

16. Papanicolaou J, Summers RJ, Vajda FJ, Louis WJ. Anticonvulsant effects of clonidine mediated through central alpha2-adrenoceptors. Eur J Pharmacol 1982;77:163–6.

17. Whittington RA, Virag L, Vulliemoz Y, et al. Dexmedetomidine increases the cocaine seizure threshold in rats. Anesthesiology 2002;97:693–700.

© 2004 International Anesthesia Research Society


Become a Society Member