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Chest. 2001 Sep;120(3):989-1002.

Physiology of vasopressin relevant to management of septic shock.

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  • 1University of British Columbia Program of Critical Care Medicine and the McDonald Research Laboratories, St. Paul's Hospital, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.


Vasopressin is emerging as a rational therapy for the hemodynamic support of septic shock and vasodilatory shock due to systemic inflammatory response syndrome. The goal of this review is to understand the physiology of vasopressin relevant to septic shock in order to maximize its safety and efficacy in clinical trials and in subsequent therapeutic use. Vasopressin is both a vasopressor and an antidiuretic hormone. It also has hemostatic, GI, and thermoregulatory effects, and is an adrenocorticotropic hormone secretagogue. Vasopressin is released from the axonal terminals of magnocellular neurons in the hypothalamus. Vasopressin mediates vasoconstriction via V1-receptor activation on vascular smooth muscle and mediates its antidiuretic effect via V2-receptor activation in the renal collecting duct system. In addition, vasopressin, at low plasma concentrations, mediates vasodilation in coronary, cerebral, and pulmonary arterial circulations. Septic shock causes first a transient early increase in blood vasopressin concentrations that decrease later in septic shock to very low levels compared to other causes of hypotension. Vasopressin infusion of 0.01 to 0.04 U/min in patients with septic shock increases plasma vasopressin levels to those observed in patients with hypotension from other causes, such as cardiogenic shock. Increased vasopressin levels are associated with a lesser need for other vasopressors. Urinary output may increase, and pulmonary vascular resistance may decrease. Infusions of > 0.04 U/min may lead to adverse, likely vasoconstriction-mediated events. Because clinical studies have been relatively small, focused on physiologic end points, and because of potential adverse effects of vasopressin, clinical use of vasopressin should await a randomized controlled trial of its effects on clinical outcomes such as organ failure and mortality.

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