How Safe Is Anesthesia? 5 Things You Should Know
For some people, anesthesia is one of the scariest parts of surgery. Do you wonder about the risks? An anesthesiologist responds to common questions about safety, particularly general anesthesia.
For some people, anesthesia is one of the scariest parts of surgery. Do you wonder about the risks? We spoke with anesthesiologist Christopher Troianos, MD, to help separate fact from fiction. He highlights five key points about anesthesia that are sometimes misunderstood or have changed in recent years.
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There are three different types of anesthesia, and you’re only unconscious with one of them.
In some cases, doctors use sedation along with local or regional anesthesia to make you more relaxed and comfortable, but not totally asleep.
This is true nowadays, but wasn’t always the case, Dr. Troianos says.
“In the 1960s and 1970s, it wasn’t uncommon to have a death related to anesthesia in every one in 10,000 or 20,000 patients,” he says. “Now it’s more like one in every 200,000 patients — it’s very rare.”
He says anesthesia is safer today because of advances in both technology and medication.
It’s common to experience the following when you wake up from anesthesia:
Although most anesthesia wears off fairly quickly, you may still feel groggy or have impaired judgment after surgery. “We usually tell people not to make any major life decisions or drive a car or operate machinery for the first 24 hours after surgery,” Dr. Troianos says.
In the past, people who had an epidural or spinal block had a risk of paralysis because of the anesthetic, Dr. Troianos says.
“The anesthetic was in glass bottles, and the staff cleaned those glass bottles in an alcohol-based solution,” he says. “Alcohol can cause nerve damage. So if the alcohol leaked into the bottle, that could cause paralysis.”
Since bottles are no longer sterilized this way, that risk is gone, he says.
“Some people worry about being awake but paralyzed during general anesthesia,” Dr. Troianos says.p
Recent movies have used this as a plot point, but it’s exceedingly rare, he says. And anesthesiologists use many strategies to prevent it.
“Typically, the patient’s blood pressure and heart rate would go up before they would regain awareness. So we monitor those things to guide the amount of anesthetic that we use,” explains Dr. Troianos.
If someone is extremely sick or was in a serious accident, vital signs are less reliable. And those who abuse drugs and alcohol are sometimes less affected by anesthesia than others.
In those cases, however, anesthesiologists carefully monitor brain waves to help make sure the patient stays asleep. This allows doctors to adjust the anesthesia to maintain unconsciousness until the procedure is over, Dr. Troianos says.