Anesthesia has come a long way since opium poppy was first used in medicine over 4,000 years ago.
No two patients are alike, and everyone reacts differently to medication. That’s why your anesthesiologist puts you through rigorous questioning before he or she concocts a recipe for you. Although anesthesia is largely safe, it isn’t without risk.
It’s Possible to Awaken During Surgery
A recent study found that 1 in 19,000 people have experienced something called“anesthesia awareness.” Most patients’ episodes were fleeting and occurred just before or after their procedures, but more than half endured full-blown panic attacks. Some felt pressure or physical sensations as the surgeon worked. Ongoing nightmares plagued one woman for fifteen years.
Brain-monitoring devices that measure consciousness reduce the risk of this rare condition.
Some Anesthetic Agents Cause Allergic Reactions
Malignant hypothermia—a rare but potentially deadly reaction to inhaling anesthesia—runs in families. Sharp muscle contractions and a rapid rise in body temperature take place upon inhalation. Dark urine, muscle pain and bleeding are other negative side effects.
If anyone in your family has experienced such a reaction, notate and highlight it in your medical history. Be sure that your caregiver is aware of it.
Anesthesia May Be Harmful to Children
Much more study is needed, but researchers are confronting new evidence that anesthesia is not entirely safe for babies and toddlers. They’re especially concerned about children younger than 3 years old.
Experiments on baby monkeys show that common anesthetics may impair brain development. Doses of anesthesia resulted in behavior problems, poor memory and diminished learning skills. Studies of human children who were exposed on several occasions also revealed links to learning disabilities.
There are no conclusive studies of humans, however, and the parents of children facing surgery have enough to worry about. Until more is known, postponing non-urgent surgeries is a reasonable precaution.
How Anesthesia Works Is a Mystery
It doesn’t really put patients to sleep; it renders them unconscious. Under deep anesthesia, the level of brain activity is so low that it’s comparable to coma.
The brain consists of functioning, independent areas that work together. One theory suggests that anesthesia prevents that kind of “teamwork,” but no one knows for sure.
For short or less complicated procedures, lighter versions of anesthesia are available. These may be called deep sedation or twilight sleep. Some patients remember hearing faint murmurs or briefly opening their eyes, but they were completely relaxed and pain-free.
Other advantages to deep sedation are fewer side effects, lower long-term health risks, greater ease in waking up and the ability to breathe on one’s own.