Toxicological Reviews

, Volume 24, Issue 3, pp 205–214 | Cite as

Tricyclic Antidepressant Poisoning

Cardiovascular Toxicity
  • H. K. Ruben Thanacoody
  • Simon H. L. Thomas
Review Article


Tricyclic antidepressants remain a common cause of fatal drug poisoning as a result of their cardiovascular toxicity manifested by ECG abnormalities, arrhythmias and hypotension. Dosulepin and amitriptyline appear to be particularly toxic in overdose. The principal mechanism of toxicity is cardiac sodium channel blockade, which increases the duration of the cardiac action potential and refractory period and delays atrioventricular conduction. Electrocardiographic changes include prolongation of the PR, QRS and QT intervals, nonspecific ST segment and T wave changes, atrioventricular block, right axis deviation of the terminal 40ms vector of the QRS complex in the frontal plane (T 40ms axis) and the Brugada pattern (downsloping ST segment elevation in leads V1–V3 in association with right bundle branch block). Maximal changes in the QRS duration and the T 40ms axis are usually present within 12 hours of ingestion but may take up to a week to resolve. Sinus tachycardia is the most common arrhythmia due to anticholinergic activity and inhibition of norepinephrine uptake by tricyclic antidepressants but bradyarrhythmias (due to atrioventricular block) and tachyarrhythmias (supraventricular and ventricular) may occur. Torsade de pointes occurs uncommonly. Hypotension results from a combination of reduced myocardial contractility and reduced systemic vascular resistance due to α-adrenergic blockade. Life-threatening arrhythmias and death due to tricyclic antidepressant poisoning usually occurs within 24 hours of ingestion. Rapid deterioration is common. Level of consciousness at presentation is the most sensitive clinical predictor of serious complications. Although a QRS duration >100ms and a rightward T 40ms axis appear to be better predictors of cardiovascular toxicity than the plasma tricyclic drug concentration, they have at best moderate sensitivity and specificity for predicting complications.


Ventricular Arrhythmia Amitriptyline Sinus Tachycardia Right Bundle Branch Block Cardiovascular Toxicity 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



No sources of funding were used to assist in the preparation of this review. The authors have no conflicts of interest that are directly relevant to the content of this review.


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Copyright information

© Adis Data Information BV 2005

Authors and Affiliations

  • H. K. Ruben Thanacoody
    • 1
    • 2
  • Simon H. L. Thomas
    • 1
    • 2
  1. 1.Wolfson Unit of Clinical Pharmacology, School of Clinical and Laboratory SciencesUniversity of NewcastleUK
  2. 2.National Poisons Information Service (Newcastle Centre)Newcastle upon TyneUK

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