The Case Against Propofol

By Medical Discovery News

May 12, 2012

Until the death of pop king Michael Jackson, few people had ever heard of the drug Propofol.  The doctor who injected him with the general anesthetic has since been convicted of being reckless with a drug that’s potent and potentially lethal. Propofol is not classified as a controlled substance, but since Jackson’s death, several scientific papers have begun to urge the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to regulate the drug.

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For that to happen, health officials would need to establish that Propofol is being abused recreationally. To date, it’s still largely found in hospital operating rooms and intensive care units where patients are highly monitored. Propofol works within seconds of injection, acting on the central nervous system to sedate a patient. A mistake can cause a drop in blood pressure, obstructed airways, and respiratory failure.

A study of trauma patients who possibly died from Propofol side effects show their EKG readings fluctuated before going into cardiac arrest. This suggests that in some patients, Propofol may be toxic to the heart.  It can also cause pancreatitis, an inflammation or bleeding of the pancreas, which can be fatal.

Though the side effects are risky, recent scientific papers document cases of medical personnel abusing the drug. Several involve anesthesiologists. One in particular self injected 10 to 15 times daily, and another was found dead of an overdose at the hospital where she worked.

One study in the 1980s tried to establish Propofol’s potential for abuse.  The subjects given Propofol described a broad range of feelings, from euphoria and sexual disinhibition to a general sense of well being.  The study’s authors concluded Propofol may be addictive.


However, the qualities for abuse extend further to include withdrawal symptoms and tolerance for the drug. In past studies, people showed a range of behaviors when taken off Propofol. Some described intense food cravings, hallucinations, and anxiety. A few studies, limited to patients in the intensive care unit, suggest they grew tolerant to the drug. But there’s not enough data to prove either withdrawal or tolerance for Propofol exists.

Over the years, Propofol use has increased mostly because it is not controlled, works quickly, and doesn’t last long. These properties make hiding Propofol abuse very easy, especially for medical personnel with access to the drug. Between 1992 and 2009, at least 45 documented cases of Propofol abuse were published in medical findings, including Michael Jackson’s recent death.  

The scientists who support regulation believe Propofol should be secured and not openly available to medical personnel, which is the case in many hospitals today. Making Propofol a controlled substance would require hospitals to regulate its use and deter an increasing interest as highlighted by Michael Jackson’s death.

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