Postanesthetic Upper Respiratory Tract Obstruction

By | 2012-11-10

Upper respiratory tract () obstruction can occur in horses recovering from general anesthesia after various surgical procedures. Postanesthetic upper respiratory tract obstruction most often results from nasal edema and/or congestion and is usually mild. Other causes include arytenoid chondritis, dorsal displacement of the soft palate, and bilateral arytenoid cartilage paralysis. Bilateral arytenoid cartilage paralysis is relatively uncommon; however, it can result in severe upper respiratory tract obstruction with the horse becoming distressed, uncontrollable, and difficult to treat. The condition may rapidly become fatal, thus postanesthetic upper respiratory tract obstruction can be a serious complication after general anesthesia and surgery.

Etiology of Postanesthetic Upper Respiratory Tract Obstruction

Nasal Edema

Nasal edema and/or congestion is most often the result of venous congestion associated with a dependent head position during a prolonged anesthesia. Horses positioned in dorsal recumbency are thought to be more prone to nasal edema than horses in lateral recumbency. Nasal and pharyngeal edema may also result from trauma during endotracheal intubation that causes local inflammation and swelling.

Dorsal Displacement of the Soft Palate

Causes of dorsal displacement of the soft palate after ex-tubation are unknown. The condition is most likely a normal consequence of orotracheal intubation and of administration of sedative and anesthetic drugs that alter upper respiratory tract neuromuscular function. If dorsal displacement persists, it is most likely the result of an underlying upper respiratory tract problem or of inflammation in the pharynx secondary to intubation.

Arytenoid Chondritis

Arytenoid chondritis is an uncommon cause of postanesthetic upper respiratory tract obstruction but can be a longer-term consequence of traumatic intubation. Although this condition will not lead to obstruction in the same anesthetic period, it may at a later time if it is not recognized. Furthermore, the presence of an abnormal arytenoid will compromise the airway and can potentiate the possibility of an obstructive crisis.

Bilateral Laryngeal Paralysis

The etiology of postanesthetic bilateral laryngeal paralysis is unknown. Proposed etiologies include inflammation and edema of the larynx and neuromuscular failure. Physical trauma from endotracheal intubation or chemical irritation from residue after endotracheal tube cleaning may result in arytenoid chondritis, laryngeal dysfunction, and laryngeal inflammation and swelling. Laryngeal edema from venous congestion associated with a dependent head position during a prolonged anesthesia may cause swelling and failure of the arytenoid cartilages to adequately adduct. Causes of neuromuscular failure that lead to bilateral arytenoid cartilage paralysis include trauma to the cervical region or jugular vein; compression of the recurrent laryngeal nerve between the endotracheal tube or cuff and noncompliant neck structures; damage to the recurrent laryngeal nerve from intraoperative hypoxia, ischemia, or hypotension; and overextension of the neck when the horse is positioned in dorsal recumbency that causes damage to the recurrent laryngeal nerve as a result of compression of its blood supply.

α2-Adrenergic agonists have been shown to increase laryngeal asynchrony and increase upper airway resistance in horses. The muscle relaxant effects of xylazine are thought to decrease the tone of the supporting airway muscles, which in combination with low head carriage may cause an increase in airway resistance. The muscle relaxant effects of xylazine may have worn off at the time the horse has recovered from anesthesia; however, one study showed that upper airway resistance increased for 30 to 40 minutes after xylazine administration and then slowly returned to normal. Impaired laryngeal function associated with xylazine administration in combination with excitement associated with recovery from anesthesia and extubation may lead to dynamic collapse of the upper respiratory tract and result in the clinical signs described. Xylazine is a commonly used preanesthetic drug; therefore although it is unlikely to be the sole cause of the upper respiratory tract obstruction, it may be a contributing factor.

Underlying upper respiratory tract disease such as laryngeal hemiplegia may also predispose horses to severe postanesthetic obstruction. A few reports exist in the literature of severe postanesthetic upper respiratory tract obstruction in horses associated with laryngeal dysfunction. In two previous reports, bilateral arytenoid cartilage paralysis was associated with surgery in the head and neck region, and the horses recovered after establishment of a patent airway. These authors have recently seen several postanesthetic upper respiratory tract obstructions in horses that have undergone surgery for a variety of reasons including arthroscopy, tarsal arthrodesis, exploratory celiotomy, ovariohysterectomy, mastectomy, and prosthetic laryngoplasty/ventriculectomy. In addition to having undergone prosthetic laryngoplasty, some of these horses had a history of laryngeal hemiplegia before surgery. This fact suggests that preexisting disease may predispose to this condition. Postanesthetic upper respiratory tract obstruction in the horses at these authors’ hospital is often associated with excitement or exertion, including standing after anesthesia and vocalization. The cause of severe obstruction therefore could be laryngospasm or dynamic adduction of both paretic arytenoid cartilages into the airway during inspiration.

In the horses at these authors’ hospital, no association exists between difficult endotracheal intubation and upper respiratory tract obstruction. In horses that developed obstruction the duration of anesthesia was 90 to 240 minutes, and horses had mild-to-moderate hypotension, hypoventilation, and hypoxemia. These authors clean their endotracheal tubes with chlorhexidine gluconate between uses. If the tubes are not rinsed adequately, mucosal irritation from residual chlorhexidine gluconate could conceivably cause upper respiratory tract irritation and lead to obstruction. Most important, however, all these horses were positioned in dorsal recumbency for at least some of the time they were under anesthesia. The horses are positioned on a waterbed from the withers caudad. This position results in hyperextension of the neck and a dependent head position, both of which may predispose to postanesthetic bilateral arytenoid paralysis.

Negative-Pressure Pulmonary Edema

Pulmonary edema can result from upper respiratory tract obstruction and has been referred to as negative-pressure pulmonary edema because the pulmonary edema occurs secondary to strong inspiratory efforts against a closed airway. In humans vigorous inspiratory efforts against a closed glottis may create a negative pressure of as low as -300 mm Hg that, obeying Starling’s laws of fluid dynamics, fluid moves from the intravascular space into the interstitium and alveoli.

Clinical Signs

Although upper respiratory tract obstruction usually occurs immediately after extubation, severe obstruction associated with bilateral arytenoid paralysis may occur within 24 to 72 hours of recovery from anesthesia. The most obvious clinical sign is upper respiratory tract dyspnea. Horses with nasal edema have a loud inspiratory snoring noise, whereas horses with dorsal displacement of the soft palate have an inspiratory and expiratory snoring noise associated with fluttering of the soft palate. Horses with severe upper respiratory tract obstruction from bilateral laryngeal paralysis have a loud, high-pitched, inspiratory stri-dor associated with exaggerated inspiratory efforts.

Treatment of Postanesthetic Upper Respiratory Tract Obstruction

Nasal Edema

The most common type of upper respiratory tract obstruction is nasal edema, which often resolves rapidly without treatment. If obstruction is severe, it is critical to create a patent airway. The horse should be reintubated with a nasotracheal or orotracheal tube or 30-cm tubing placed in the nostrils to bypass the obstruction. Phenylephrine intranasal spray (5-10 mg in 10 ml water) or furosemide (1 mg/kg) may be used to reduce the nasal edema. Edema can be prevented by atraumatic intubation, reducing surgery time, and keeping the horse’s head elevated during anesthesia and surgery.

Dorsal Displacement of the Soft Palate

Dorsal displacement of the soft palate usually resolves spontaneously when the horse swallows, however, it may be corrected through induction of swallowing by gentle manipulation of the larynx or by insertion of a nasogastric tube into the pharynx.

Bilateral Laryngeal Paralysis

Severe obstruction often develops when the horse stands after being extubated. Emergency treatment is required because the horse will rapidly become severely hypoxic, develop cardiovascular collapse, and die. Horses are often difficult to treat because obstruction may not be noticed until the horse is severely hypoxic and uncontrollable. Treatment is then delayed until the horse collapses from hypoxia, however, emergency reintubation or tracheostomy is often too late.

Immediate treatment consists of rapid reintubation or tracheostomy. Horses may be reintubated with a nasotracheal tube (14-22 mm) or an orotracheal tube (20-26 mm). The clinician performs a tracheostomy by clipping, preparing, and blocking the ventral cervical region (if time permits), making a 8-cm vertical incision on midline at the junction of the upper and middle thirds of the neck, bluntly separating the sternothyrohyoideus muscles, and then making a transverse incision between the tracheal rings. These authors recommend having a kit available with a tracheostomy tube and drugs for reinduction of anesthesia (xylazine, 1.1 mg/kg; ketamine, 2.2 mg/kg; or a paralytic agent such as succinylcholine, 330 μg/kg IM). Horses should be treated with insufflation of oxygen immediately after establishment of an airway.

Prevention of upper respiratory tract obstruction after anesthesia requires treatment of hypotension, hypoxemia, and hypoventilation, avoidance hyperextension of the neck when horses are positioned in dorsal recumbency, and thorough rinsing of endotracheal tubes. These authors recover horses with the oral endotracheal tube in place, and following extubation closely monitor air movement.

If the horse has bilateral laryngeal paralysis, it may be necessary to establish a tracheostomy while the horse is treated aggressively with antiinflammatory treatment. Recovery should occur within days.

Negative-Pressure Pulmonary Edema

Previous reports have described successful treatment of negative-pressure pulmonary edema, however, treatment may fail if a delay occurs between obstruction and treatment or if an unknown underlying disease is present. Treatment of negative-pressure pulmonary edema consists of administration of oxygen through nasal insufflation (10-15 L/min for an adult horse), a diuretic (furosemide, lmg/kg IV, and mannitol, 0.5-1.0 g/kg IV), antiinflammatory agents (flunixin meglumine, 1.1 mg/kg; dexamethasone, 0.1-0.3 mg/kg; dimethyl sulfoxide [DMSO]; lg/kg), and the positive inotrope epinephrine (2-5 μg/kg). Fluid therapy with polyionic isotonic fluids and electrolytes should be administered, however, overhydration of horses with pulmonary edema must be avoided.