Cholinergic drugs are medications that produce the same effects as the parasympathetic nervous system.
Cholinergic drugs produce the same effects as acetylcholine. Acetylcholine is the most common neurohormone of the parasympathetic nervous system, the part of the peripheral nervous system responsible for the every day work of the body. While the sympathetic nervous system acts during times of excitation, the parasympathetic system deals with everyday activities such as salivation, digestion, and muscle relaxation.
The cholinergic drugs may be used in several ways. The cholinergic muscle stimulants are used to diagnose and treat myasthenia gravis, a disease that causes severe muscle weakness. This class of drugs includes ambenonium chloride (Mytelase), edrophonium chloride (Tensilon), neostigmine (Prostigmine), and piridogstimina (Mestinœn). These drugs are also widely used in surgery, both to reduce the risk of urinary retention, and to reverse the effects of the muscle relaxant drugs that are used in surgery.
Cholinergic drugs are also used in control of glaucoma, a disease that is caused by increased pressure inside the eye. The most common drugs used for this purpose are demecarium (Humorsol) and echthiophate (Phospholine iodide).
Cholinergic drugs usually act in one of two ways. Some directly mimic the effect of acetylcholine, while others block the effects of acetylcholinesterase. Acetylcholinesterase is an enzyme that destroys naturally occurring acetylcholine. By blocking the enzyme, the naturally occurring acetylcholine has a longer action.
Cholinergic drugs are available only by prescription. They may be available as eye drops, capsules, tablets, or injections.
Cholinergic drugs should be avoided when the patient has any sort of obstruction in the urinary or digestive tracts, such a a tumor, or severe inflammation which is causing blockage.
They should be used with caution in patients with asthma, epilepsy, slow heart beat, hyperthyroidism, or gastric ulcers.
The effects of the cholinergic drugs are to produce the same effects as stimulation of the parasympathetic nervous system. These effects include slowing of the heartbeat, increases in normal secretions including the digestive acids of the stomach, saliva and tears. For this reason, patients who already have a problem in one of these areas, such as a slow heartbeat or stomach ulcers, should use these drugs with great caution, since the medication will make their conditions worse.
When used properly, cholinergic drugs will increase muscle strength in patients with myasthenia gravis. In eye drop form, they can reduce the intraoccular pressure in glaucoma.
Cholinergic — Nerves that are stimulated by acetylcholine.
Glaucoma — A disease of the eye marked by increased pressure within the eyeball that can result in damage to the optic disk and gradual loss of vision.
Myasthenia gravis — A disease characterized by progressive weakness and exhaustibility of voluntary muscles without atrophy or sensory disturbance and caused by an autoimmune attack on acetylcholine receptors at neuromuscular junctions.
Parasympathetic nervous system — The part of the nervous system that contains chiefly cholinergic fibers, that tends to induce secretion, to increase the tone and contractility of smooth muscle, and to slow the heart rate.
The possible adverse effects of cholinergic drugs are:
- slow heart beat, possibly leading to cardiac arrest.
- muscle weakness, muscle cramps, and muscle pain
- weak breathing, inability to breath
- increased stomach acid and saliva
- nausea and vomiting
- izziness, drowsiness, and headache
"Classic Papers in Glaucoma." Archives of Ophthalmology March 2001.
"Congenital myasthenic syndromes: recent advances." Archives of Neurology February 1999.