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The principal pharmacological action of sodium nitroprusside is relaxation of vascular smooth muscle and consequent dilatation of peripheral arteries and veins. Other smooth muscle (e.g. , uterus, duodenum) is not affected. Sodium nitroprusside is more active on veins than on arteries, but this selectivity is much less marked than that of nitroglycerin. Dilatation of the veins promotes peripheral pooling of blood and decreases venous return to the heart, thereby reducing left ventricular end-diastolic pressure and pulmonary capillary wedge pressure (preload). Arteriolar relaxation reduces systemic vascular resistance, systolic arterial pressure, and mean arterial pressure (afterload). Dilatation of the coronary arteries also occurs.

In association with the decrease in blood pressure, sodium nitroprusside administered intravenously to hypertensive and normotensive patients produces slight increases in heart rate and a variable effect on cardiac output. In hypertensive patients, moderate doses induce renal vasodilatation roughly proportional to the decrease in systemic blood pressure, so there is no appreciable change in renal blood flow or glomerular filtration rate.

In normotensive subjects, acute reduction of mean arterial pressure to 60-75 mm Hg by infusion of sodium nitroprusside caused a significant increase in renin activity. In the same study, ten renovascular-hypertensive patients given sodium nitroprusside had significant increases in renin release from the involved kidney at mean arterial pressures of 90-137 mm Hg.

The hypotensive effect of sodium nitroprusside is seen within a minute or two after the start of an adequate infusion, and it dissipates almost as rapidly after an infusion is discontinued. The effect is augmented by ganglionic blocking agents and inhaled anesthetics.

Pharmacokinetics and Metabolism

Infused sodium nitroprusside is rapidly distributed to a volume that is approximately coextensive with the extracellular space. The drug is cleared from this volume by intraerythrocytic reaction with hemoglobin (Hgb), and sodium nitroprusside's resulting circulatory half-life is about 2 minutes.

The products of the nitroprusside/hemoglobin reaction are cyanmethemoglobin (cyanmetHgb) and cyanide ion (CN»). Safe use of sodium nitroprusside injection must be guided by knowledge of the further metabolism of these products.

As shown in the diagram below, the essential features of nitroprusside metabolism are

  • one molecule of sodium nitroprusside is metabolized by combination with hemoglobin to produce one molecule of cyanmethemoglobin and four CN ions;
  • methemoglobin, obtained from hemoglobin, can sequester cyanide as cyanmethemoglobin;
  • thiosulfate reacts with cyanide to produce thiocyanate;
  • thiocyanate is eliminated in the urine;
  • cyanide not otherwise removed binds to cytochromes; and
  • cyanide is much more toxic than methemoglobin or thiocyanate.

Metabolism of Sodium Nitroprusside - Illustration

Cyanide ion is normally found in serum; it is derived from dietary substrates and from tobacco smoke. Cyanide binds avidly (but reversibly) to ferric ion (Fe+++), most body stores of which are found in erythrocyte methemoglobin (metHgb) and in mitochondrial cytochromes. When CN»is infused or generated within the bloodstream, essentially all of it is bound to methemoglobin until intraerythrocytic methemoglobin has been saturated.

When the Fe+++ of cytochromes is bound to cyanide, the cytochromes are unable to participate in oxidative metabolism. In this situation, cells may be able to provide for their energy needs by utilizing anaerobic pathways, but they thereby generate an increasing body burden of lactic acid. Other cells may be unable to utilize these alternate pathways, and they may die hypoxic deaths.

CN» levels in packed erythrocytes are typically less than 1 µmol/L (less than 25 mcg/L); levels are roughly doubled in heavy smokers. At healthy steady state, most people have less than 1% of their hemoglobin in the form of methemoglobin. Nitroprusside metabolism can lead to methemoglobin formation (a) through dissociation of cyanmethemoglobin formed in the original reaction of sodium nitroprusside with Hgb and (b) by direct oxidation of Hgb by the released nitroso group. Relatively large quantities of sodium nitroprusside, however, are required to produce significant methemoglobinemia.

At physiologic methemoglobin levels, the CN» binding capacity of packed red cells is a little less than 200 µmol/L (5 mg/L).

Cytochrome toxicity is seen at levels only slightly higher, and death has been reported at levels from 300 to 3000 µmol/L (8-80 mg/L). Put another way, a patient with a normal red-cell mass (35 mL/kg) and normal methemoglobin levels can buffer about 175 mcg/kg of CN», corresponding to a little less than 500 mcg/kg of infused sodium nitroprusside.

Some cyanide is eliminated from the body as expired hydrogen cyanide, but most is enzymatically converted to thiocyanate (SCN») by thiosulfate-cyanide sulfur transferase (rhodanase, EC, a mitochondrial enzyme. The enzyme is normally present in great excess, so the reaction is rate-limited by the availability of sulfur donors, especially thiosulfate, cystine, and cysteine.

Thiosulfate is a normal constituent of serum, produced from cysteine by way of β-mercaptopyruvate. Physiological levels of thiosulfate are typically about 0.1 mmol/L (11 mg/L), but they are approximately twice this level in children and in adults who are not eating. Infused thiosulfate is cleared from the body (primarily by the kidneys) with a half-life of about 20 minutes.

When thiosulfate is being supplied only by normal physiologic mechanisms, conversion of CN» to SCN» generally proceeds at about 1 mcg/kg/min. This rate of CN»clearance corresponds to steady-state processing of a sodium nitroprusside infusion of slightly more than 2 mcg/kg/min. CN» begins to accumulate when sodium nitroprusside infusions exceed this rate.

Thiocyanate (SCN») is also a normal physiological constituent of serum, with normal levels typically in the range of 50-250 µmol/L (3-15 mg/L). Clearance of SCN» is primarily renal, with a half-life of about 3 days. In renal failure, the half-life can be doubled or tripled.

Clinical Trials

Baseline-controlled clinical trials have uniformly shown that sodium nitroprusside has a prompt hypotensive effect, at least initially, in all populations. With increasing rates of infusion, sodium nitroprusside has been able to lower blood pressure without an observed limit of effect.

Clinical trials have also shown that the hypotensive effect of sodium nitroprusside is associated with reduced blood loss in a variety of major surgical procedures.

In patients with acute congestive heart failure and increased peripheral vascular resistance, administration of sodium nitroprusside causes reductions in peripheral resistance, increases in cardiac output, and reductions in left ventricular filling pressure.

Many trials have verified the clinical significance of the metabolic pathways described above. In patients receiving unopposed infusions of sodium nitroprusside, cyanide and thiocyanate levels have increased with increasing rates of sodium nitroprusside infusion. Mild to moderate metabolic acidosis has usually accompanied higher cyanide levels, but peak base deficits have lagged behind the peak cyanide levels by an hour or more.

Progressive tachyphylaxis to the hypotensive effects of sodium nitroprusside has been reported in several trials and numerous case reports. This tachyphylaxis has frequently been attributed to concomitant cyanide toxicity, but the only evidence adduced for this assertion has been the observation that in patients treated with sodium nitroprusside and found to be resistant to its hypotensive effects, cyanide levels are often found to be elevated. In the only reported comparisons of cyanide levels in resistant and nonresistant patients, cyanide levels did not correlate with tachyphylaxis. The mechanism of tachyphylaxis to sodium nitroprusside remains unknown.

Last reviewed on RxList: 4/7/2009
This monograph has been modified to include the generic and brand name in many instances.

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