A vial of succinylcholine

The muscle relaxant succinylcholine (sux) has the wonderful advantage of rendering a patient paralyzed in less than a minute, and the discouraging disadvantage of a long list of side effects that make the drug problematic.

I would never begin an anesthetic without succinylcholine being immediately available. No other muscle relaxant supplies as rapid an onset of action and as short a duration of action. An intravenous dose of 1 mg/kg of succinylcholine brings complete paralysis of the neuromuscular junction at 60 seconds, and recovery to 90% of muscle strength in 9 – 13 minutes. (Miller’s Anesthesia, 7th Edition, 2009, Chapter 29, Pharmacology of Muscle Relaxants and Their Antagonists). If a patient has an acute airway disaster on induction such as laryngospasm or pulmonary aspiration, no drug enables emergency endotracheal intubation as quickly as succinylcholine. That said, I never use succinylcholine unless I have to. The drug has too many side effects and rocuronium is often a better choice. For an elective anesthetic on a patient who has fasted and has an empty stomach, one almost never needs to use succinylcholine. If you do use sux, you are exposing your patient to the following side effects:

1. Myalgias. Your patient complains to you the following day, “Doc, I feel like I was run over by a truck.” Because the majority of anesthetics are currently done on outpatients, and because you do not personally interview these patients the following day, you won’t be aware of the degree of muscle pain you’ve induced by using the depolarizing relaxant succinylcholine. Published data quantitates the incidence of post-succinylcholine myalgia as varying from 0.2 % to 89% (Brodsky JB, Anesthesiology 1979; 51:259-61), but my clinical impression is that the number is closer to 89% than it is to 0.2%. Myalgias aren’t life-threatening, but if you ever converse with your patient one day after succinylcholine and they complain of severe muscle aches, you’ll wish you’d chosen another muscle relaxant if possible.
2. Risk of cardiac arrest in children. Succinylcholine carries a black box warning for use in children. Rare hyperkalemia and ventricular arrhythmias followed by cardiac arrest may occur in apparently healthy children who have an occult muscular dystrophy. The black box warning on succinylcholine recommends to “reserve use in children for emergency intubation or need to immediately secure the airway.”
3. Hyperkalemia, with an average increase of 0.5 mEq in potassium concentration after intravenous succinylcholine injection.
4. Cardiac arrest in patients with a history of severe trauma, neurologic disease or burns. There’s a risk of cardiac arrest with succinylcholine use in patients with severe burns, major trauma, stroke, prolonged immobility, multiple sclerosis, or Guillian-Barré syndrome, due to an up-regulation of acetylcholine. The increase in serum potassium normally seen with succinylcholine can be greatly increased in these populations, leading to ventricular arrhythmia and cardiac arrest. There is typically no risk using succinylcholine in the first 24 hours after the acute injury.
5. Cardiac arrhythmias. Both tachy and bradycardias can be seen following the injection of succinylcholine.
6. Increase in intraocular pressure, a hazard when the eye is open or traumatized.
7. Increase in intragastric pressure, a hazard if gastric motility is abnormal or the stomach is full.
8. Increase in intracranial pressure, a hazard with head injuries or intracerebral bleeds or tumors.
9. Malignant Hyperthermia (MH) risk. The incidence of MH is low. A Danish study reported one case per 4500 anesthetics when triggering agents are in use (Ording H, Dan Med Bull, 43:111-125), but succinylcholine is the only injectable drug which is a trigger for MH, and this is a disincentive to use the drug routinely.
10. Prolonged phase II blockade. Patients who have genetically abnormal plasma butyrylcholinesterase activity have the risk of a prolonged phase II succinylcholine block lasting up to six hours instead of the expected 9 – 13 minutes. If you’ve ever had to stay in the operating room or post-anesthesia recovery room for hours with a ventilated patient after their surgery ended because your patient incurred prolonged blockade from succinylcholine, you won’t forget it, and you’ll hope it never happens again.

What does a practicing anesthesiologist use instead of succinylcholine? Rocuronium.

A 0.6 mg/kg intubating dose of the non-depolarizing relaxant rocuronium has an onset time to maximum block of 1.7 minutes and a duration of 36 minutes. The onset time can be shortened by increasing the dose to a 1.2 mg/kg, a dose which has an onset time to maximum block of 0.9 minutes and a duration of 73 minutes. These durations can be shortened by reversing the rocuronium blockade as soon as one twitch is measured with a neuromuscular blockade monitor. Thus by using a larger dose of rocuronium, practitioners can have an onset of acceptable intubation conditions at 0.9 X 60 seconds = 54 seconds, compared to the 30 seconds noted with succinylcholine, without any of the 10 above-listed succinylcholine side effects. The duration of rocuronium when reversed by neostigmine/glycopyrrolate can be as short as 20 – 25 minutes, a time short enough to accommodate most brief surgical procedures.

Here is a list of surgical cases once thought to be indications for using succinylcholine, which I would argue are now better served by using a dose of rocuronium followed by early reversal with neostigmine/glycopyrrolate:

1) Brief procedures requiring intubation, such as bronchoscopy or tonsillectomy.
2) Procedures which require intubation plus intraoperative nerve monitoring, such as middle ear surgery.
3) Procedures requiring intubation of obese and morbidly obese patients who appear to have no risk factors for mask ventilation.
4) Procedures requiring full stomach precautions and cricoid pressure, in which the patient’s oxygenation status can tolerate 54 seconds of apnea prior to intubation. This includes emergency surgery and trauma patients. Miller’s Anesthesia (Chapter 72, Anesthesia for Trauma) discusses the induction of anesthesia and endotracheal intubation for emergency patients who are not NPO and may have full stomachs. Either succinylcholine or rocuronium can be used, with succinylcholine having the advantage of a quicker onset and the 1.2 mg/kg of rocuronium having the advantage of lacking the 10 side effects listed above. The fact that succinylcholine wears off in 9 – 13 minutes was not considered any safer in “cannot intubate, cannot ventilate” situations, because waiting 9 minutes for a return to spontaneous respirations would still be associated with severe hypoxia.

On the other hand, succinylcholine is the sole recommended muscle relaxant for:

1) Cesarean sections. Miller’s Anesthesia (Chapter 69, Anesthesia for Obstetrics) still recommends thiopental and succinylcholine for Cesarean sections that require general anesthesia, and I would be loath to disagree with our specialty’s Bible.
2) Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) for depression. Miller’s Anesthesia (Chapter 79, Anesthesia at Remote Locations) recommends partial muscle relaxation during ECT, and recommends small doses of succinylcholine (0.5 mg/kg) to reduce the peripheral manifestations of the seizure and to prevent musculoskeletal trauma to the patient.
3) Urgent intubation or re-intubation in a patient when every second counts, e.g. a patient who is already hypoxic. A subset of this indication is the patient who is being mask-induced and becomes hypoxic and requires intramuscular succinylcholine injection.
4) Laryngospasm either during mask induction or post-extubation, in which the patient requires urgent paralysis to relax the vocal cords.

In conclusion, most indications for muscle relaxation are better handled by using the non-depolarizing drug rocuronium rather than succinylcholine. However, because of the four recommended uses for succinylcholine listed in the previous paragraph, none of us would ever practice anesthesia without a vial of succinylcholine in our drawer for immediate availability.

I try very, very hard to minimize my use of succinylcholine, and so should you. But to answer our original question… succinylcholine is still a vital drug and not a dinosaur at all.


Introducing …,  THE DOCTOR AND MR. DYLAN, Dr. Novak’s debut novel, a legal mystery. Publication date September 9, 2014 by Pegasus Books.

On October 2, 2014 THE DOCTOR AND MR. DYLAN became the world’s  #1 bestselling anesthesia Kindle book on

The first four chapters are available for free at Amazon. Read them and you’ll be hooked! To reach the Amazon webpage, click on the book image below:


Stanford professor Dr. Nico Antone leaves the wife he hates and the job he loves to return to Hibbing, Minnesota where he spent his childhood. He believes his son’s best chance to get accepted into a prestigious college is to graduate at the top of his class in this remote Midwestern town. His son becomes a small town hero and academic star, while Dr. Antone befriends Bobby Dylan, a deranged anesthetist who renamed and reinvented himself as a younger version of the iconic rock legend who grew up in Hibbing. An operating room death rocks their world, and Dr. Antone’s family and his relationship to Mr. Dylan are forever changed.

Equal parts legal thriller and medical thriller, The Doctor and Mr. Dylan examines the dark side of relationships between a doctor and his wife, a father and his son, and a man and his best friend. Set in a rural Northern Minnesota world reminiscent of the Coen brothers’ Fargo, The Doctor and Mr. Dylan details scenes of family crises, operating room mishaps, and courtroom confrontation, and concludes in a final twist that will leave readers questioning what is of value in the world we live in.


5.0 out of 5 stars The Doctor and Mr Dylan, March 3, 2015
prabha venugopal (chicago, il USA) – See all my reviews
Verified Purchase(What’s this?)
Gripping from the beginning to the end. Very well written, bringing to the forefront all the human emotions seen in an operating room spill over into real life. I cannot wait for Dr. Novak to wrote another book! As another physician in the same profession, my admiration for his book knows no limits.

Bang-Up Debut Novel, November 16, 2014

By Norm Goldman “Publisher & Editor of Bookpleasures”

This part legal and medical thriller is structured with a mixed bag of situations involving relationships, jealousy, evil, lies, courtroom drama, operating room mishaps as well as moments that engender conflicting and unexpected outcomes. Noteworthy is that as the suspense builds readers will become eager to uncover the truth involving a mishap concerning Nico and a surgical procedure that has unanticipated ramifications.

This is a bang-up debut from a writer who understands timing and is able to deliver hairpin turns, particularly involving the courtroom drama,that you would expect from a book of this genre. PIONEER PRESS Entertainment

by Mary Ann Grossman, Entertainment Editor, St. Paul Pioneer Press, January 4, 2015

“The Doctor & Mr. Dylan” by Rick Novak (Pegasus Books, $17.50)

Dr. Nico Antone doesn’t hide the fact he hates his wife, but he says he didn’t kill her during an operation. The authorities think otherwise and his trial is the riveting suspense in this novel that is part medical thriller, part legal thriller, part exploration of family relationships.

Nico is an anesthesiologist (as is the author) who leaves his wife, their plush life in California and his job at Stanford to move to his hometown of Hibbing so their son, Johnny, has a better chance of getting into a prestigious college. Johnny hates the idea of moving to a small, cold town, but he’s popular from the first day in school. Nico doesn’t do so well. He’s envied by Bobby, an anesthetist who’s jealous of the better-educated Nico. But it’s hard to take Bobby seriously, since he thinks he’s the young Bob Dylan and lives in the house where Bobby Zimmerman grew up. To complicate matters, Nico is attracted to the mother of the young woman his son is dating. When the two teens get in trouble, Nico’s furious, rich wife comes to Minnesota and needs an emergency operation that puts her on Nico’s operating table.

Novak grew up in Hibbing, where he worked in the iron ore mines and played on the U.S. Junior Men’s Curling championship teams of 1974 and ’75. After graduating from Carleton College, he earned a medical degree at the University of Chicago and spent 30-plus years at Stanford Hospital, where he was an associate professor of anesthesia and Deputy Chief of the Anesthesia Department. His courtroom scenes are based on his experiences as an expert witness.

The Physician’s Late-Night Reading List

Two Pritzker alums pen captivating tales

By Brooke E. O’Neill, University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine, editir, Medicine on the Midway Magazine

For most physicians, writing — patient notes, case histories, perhaps journal articles — is part of the job. But for anesthesiologist-novelist Rick Novak, MD’80, and neurosurgeon-memoirist Moris Senegor, MD’82, it’s a second career that consumes early morning hours long before they step into the OR.

Fans of John Grisham will find a kindred spirit in Novak, whose fast-paced medical thriller, The Doctor & Mr. Dylan (Pegasus Books, 2014), transports readers to rural Northern Minnesota, where an accomplished physician and a deranged anesthetist who thinks he’s rock legend Bob Dylan see their worlds collide in the most unexpected ways.

Delivering real-life twists and turns — and a love letter to the Bay Area — is Senegor’s Dogmeat: A Memoir of Love and Neurosurgery in San Francisco (Xlibris, 2014), a coming-of-age tale chronicling the author’s away rotation with renowned neurosurgeon Charles Wilson, MD, at the University of California, San Francisco. Brutally honest, it spares no details of a time Senegor, who also served as a resident under the University of Chicago’s famed neurosurgery chair Sean Mullan, MD, describes as “one of the biggest failures of my life.”

One a vividly imagined nail-biter, the other an intimate peek into the surgical suite, both books deliver an ample dose of intensity and drama.



The Doctor and Mr. Dylan (Pegasus Books, 2014) by Rick Novak, MD’80

“I thought it was a novel way of killing someone,” said Rick Novak, deputy chief of anesthesiology at Stanford University, describing the imagined hospital death that was the genesis of his dark thriller The Doctor & Mr. Dylan. A huge Bob Dylan fan — the rock icon was born in Novak’s hometown of Hibbing, Minnesota, where the story takes place — he then dreamed up a possible culprit: a psychotic anesthetist who thinks he’s Dylan.

From there, the words flowed. “I would write whenever I was with my laptop and had a free moment: in mornings, in evenings, in gaps between cases,” said Novak, who also blogs about anesthesia topics. “I don’t sleep much.”

After finishing the manuscript — one year to write, another to edit — came the challenge of finding a publisher. “In anesthesia, I’m an expert,” Novak said. “In the literary world, I’m an unknown.” After 207 responses of “no, thanks” or no answer at all, he landed an agent. Two months later, she informed him that Pegasus Books had bought his debut novel.

“I started crying,” Novak admits. “I have a third grader and at the time the big word the class was learning was ‘perseverance.’ That was it exactly.”

Dr. Joseph Andresen, Editor, Santa Clara County Medical Association Medical Bulletin, from the January/February 2015 issue:


This past month, Dr. Rick Novak handed me a hardbound copy of his debut novel The Doctor and Mr. Dylan. Rick and I go way back. It was my first week of residency at Stanford when we first met. A newcomer to the operating room, all the smells and sounds were foreign to me despite my previous three years in the hospital as an internal medicine resident. Rick, a soft spoken Minnesotan at heart, in his second year of residency, took me under his wing and guided me through those first few bewildering months, sharing his experience and wisdom freely.

Fast-forward 30 years later. Dr. Rick Novak, a novel and mystery author? This was new to me as I sat down and opened the first page of The Doctor and Mr. Dylan. I have to admit that I didn’t know what to expect. Few books highlight a physician/anesthesiologist as a protagonist, and few books feature a SCCMA member as a physician/author. However, a medical-mystery theme novel wasn’t at the top of my must read list. With my 50-hour workweek, living and breathing medicine, imagining more emotional stress and drama was the furthest thing from my mind. However, three days later, as I turned the last page, and read the last few words. “life is a series of choices. I stuck my forefinger into the crook of the steering wheel, spun it hard to the left and …” This completed my 72-hour journey of and free moments I had, completely immersed in this story of life’s disappointments, human imperfections, and simple joys.

Rick, I can’t wait for your next book. Bravo!

Hibbingite writes twisted medical tale

HIBBING — Readers who are looking for a whodunit that will keep them up all night are in for a treat.

Hibbing native Rick Novak recently released his first book “The Doctor and Mr. Dylan,” a fiction set in Hibbing that merges anesthesia complications, a tumultuous marriage and the legend of Bob Dylan.

“The dialogue is sometimes funny, and there are lots of plot twists,” he said.

Novak said the book will not only entertain readers, but teach them about anesthesiology, Dylanology, the stressful race for elite college admission, and life on the Iron Range.

“The book is very conversational and streamlined,” he said. “I try to write as one would tell a story out loud.”

Novak said “The Doctor and Mr. Dylan” took him three years to perfect. He is currently working on his second book.

5.0 out of 5 stars I Sense We Have Another F.Scott Fitzgerald Emerging on the Literary Scene, December 1, 2014
Deann Brady (Sunnyvale, CA USA) – See all my reviews
I found Rick Novak’s first novel, “The Doctor and Mr. Dylan,” a most exciting combination of biting sarcasm, mystery and daily activity spun with fresh new phrases that made me turn my ear back to listen to the literary cadence of his words again and again even though, on the other hand, I was anxious to turn the pages to see what would happen next. His brilliant handling of scenes is reminiscent of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. A compelling read!Deany Brady, author of “An Appalachian Childhood”


allan mishra

This review is from: The Doctor and Mr. Dylan (Kindle Edition)

Just finished Dr. Novak’s delightful novel. I sincerely enjoyed his honest take about the pressures and values that exist within California’s Silicon Valley. He also brought the North Country of Minnesota to life with memorable characters and a twisting, addictive plot. Buried beneath the fun and funny story is a deeper message about how to best care for your kids, your relationships and yourself. Very well written and highly recommended.

Learn more about Rick Novak’s fiction writing at rick by clicking on the picture below:




  1. My 2 1/2 Month old grandson was given succinylcholine during transport to the hospital. When he got to the hospital he never moved, and never breathed on his own again. He was given succinylcholine for intubation attempts. He was also given vecuronium. Could this be why my grandson ultimately passed away? We can not get anyone to help us with finding out what happened to him.


    1. I’m so sorry for your loss.
      It’s impossible to know for sure without reviewing the medical records, but I can comment on a few things.
      It sounds like your grandson was critically ill if they needed to use succinylcholine and vecuronium. Both succinylcholine and vecuronium will halt movement and breathing, but in medical care the breathing is routinely done by ventilating the lungs of a paralyzed patient with an Ambu bag or a ventilator. Both succinylcholine and vecuronium would eventually wear off, and neither would cause him to die if the medical personnel were breathing for him.


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