Why Does Fentanyl Cause Chest Wall Rigidity?

Fentanyl is a powerful opioid painkiller that unfortunately is all too often misused and abused. Fentanyl, which was first used in medical settings in the 1960s, started to be illicitly used in the 1970s. Because of how potent it is, this drug binds to the opioid receptors in the user’s brain and creates a euphoric rush of dopamine. It also in many ways rewires the brain, as do so many opioids, which means people quickly build a tolerance to it, and ultimately this contributes to how addictive it is, and also how deadly.

Opioids like fentanyl depress the respiratory system, and they can also cause bradycardia, which is a slow, irregular heartbeat.

Along with these serious and frequently deadly side effects and consequences of using fentanyl, is something called chest wall rigidity, also referred to as wooden chest syndrome.

A common question people have is why does fentanyl cause chest wall rigidity. This condition, as well as why fentanyl causes it, are detailed below.

Why Does Fentanyl Cause Chest Wall Rigidity?
Before looking at why does fentanyl cause chest wall rigidity, it can be helpful to have an understanding of what this is.

Chest wall rigidity or wooden chest syndrome refers to what happens when the thoracic muscles become rigid, which impacts respiration. It can also impact the abdominal muscles and similarly cause them to become rigid. It makes breathing hard, but naloxone can reduce the symptoms when this happens.

Chest wall rigidity is most often associated with using opioids like fentanyl intravenously, and there has been research recently showing that at least some of the deaths related to injecting fentanyl illicitly could be attributed to chest wall rigidity.

Until very recently, it wasn’t reported as a factor in the frequent drug abuse deaths that have been happening around the country. Now, doctors and researchers are pushing for people to understand that the development of chest wall rigidity or wooden chest syndrome is just one more way they can die from the use of fentanyl and similar drugs.

Along with fentanyl causing chest wall rigidity, it’s also been shown to occur with the rapid intravenous use of other synthetic opioids that are related to fentanyl.

Fentanyl has become a big part of the illicit heroin market because it’s often much stronger than heroin, and this has led to an increase in the intravenous use of the drug which is thought to be related to the rise in the number of deaths among drug abusers in recent years.

In rare cases, the use of fentanyl in anesthetics has also been shown to lead to chest wall rigidity.

Understanding fentanyl and things like chest wall rigidity are important as deaths are on the rise. In fact, 75% of men and women in Massachusetts who died from an unintentional overdose in 2016 had fentanyl in their system, and these statistics are similarly reflected throughout the country.

People who abuse fentanyl have also seen that with this drug there are really no warnings when an overdose occurs; it’s often instant, and one of the reasons might be because of wooden chest syndrome.

A few things to note about wooden chest syndrome is that when it happens, and someone needs CPR, it usually can’t be done, or it’s incredibly difficult to do so. When the person’s brain is cut off from oxygen even for a short time brain cells start to die.

So, why does fentanyl cause chest wall rigidity?

It’s believed that it’s because of the general effects the drug has on the respiratory system. Opioids like fentanyl directly impact the respiratory center which is in the brainstem.

There is thought to be some interaction between the slowing of the entire respiratory system and the paralyzing of the chest muscles that are related to one another.

Why Does Fentanyl Cause Chest Wall Rigidity?
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