Postoperative respiratory depression after alfentanil administration has been described in several case reports. The effects of a prolonged alfentanil infusion on the CO2 response curve or cognitive function have not been studied. Twenty-one ASA physical status I or II patients were studied after a prolonged alfentanil infusion (>90 min) to determine the incidence of postoperative respiratory depression, arterial O2 desaturation, and impairment of cognitive function. Each patient's recovery was observed at 30-min intervals for evidence of respiratory depression (utilizing the Read CO2 rebreathing method), desaturation by pulse oximetry (severe desaturation defined as arterial O2 saturation <90%), and cognitive function (utilizing Trieger dot and digit substitution tests). Plasma samples were also examined for secondary elevations in alfentanil plasma concentrations. Significant depression of the CO2 response curve and cognitive function was found up to 1 h postoperatively. Arterial O2 desaturation was seen in 11 of 21 patients (52%). No correlation was found between arterial O2 desaturation and cognitive function scores or CO2 rebreathing results. Increased depression of the CO2 response curve was not necessarily associated with severe desaturation episodes. A secondary increase in plasma alfentanil concentration was detected in 5 of the 21 patients (24%), but these patients did not experience further depression of the CO2response curve. We conclude that prolonged alfentanil administration may result in severe arterial O2desaturation with significant depression of the hyper-capnic respiratory drive during the first hour in the postanesthesia care unit, even though the majority of our patients were easily aroused in response to verbal stimuli.
Address correspondence to Dr. Goldberg, Department of Anesthesiology, Jefferson Medical College, Thomas Jefferson University, 111 South 11th Street, Suite G-6420, Philadelphia, PA 19107.
© 1992 International Anesthesia Research Society