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The risk you take: Anesthesia and surgery

For a lot of people, going under the surgeon's knife isn't nearly as intimidating as going under anesthesia. However, anesthesia has changed a lot in the last few decades and is critical to many surgical procedures.

For one thing, it's far safer than it used to be. Problems with anesthesia used to kill one out of every 10,000-20,000 people. Now, anesthesia-related deaths are highly uncommon, happening only once out of every 200,000 surgeries.

Sophisticated methods of watching a patient's blood oxygen levels help prevent serious injuries. Fatalities due to hyperthermia, a relatively rare reaction to begin with, are also rarer thanks to new medications.

Another facotr that's improved is the effectiveness of local and regional anesthetics. Doctors rely less and less these days on general anesthesia, which is what makes a patient totally unconscious. It's reserved for traumatic surgeries like those in the chest or brain.

Many other surgeries can now be performed with much less anesthesia than before, including the use of "twilight" sleep.

For example, women used to be put under general anesthesia for C-sections during childbirth. Now, it's much more common to have a spinal block before a C-section instead. Part of the reason for the change is that regional anesthetics like spinals are much safer.

Patients used to risk paralysis when a spinal was used, but doctors finally discovered the cause. The alcohol used to sterilize the bottles of anesthesia sometimes leaked into the bottles. When that alcohol got into the patient's system, nerve damage could result.

In addition, anesthesiologists are now able to easily monitor a wide array of vital signs while a patient is under anesthesia. That helps prevent things like a patient regaining consciousness during surgery or slipping away due to an excess of anesthesia.

In fact, serious injuries and fatalities due to anesthesia are so uncommon that patients and their families are right to question a bad outcome. While some anesthesia-related injuries may be the result of unavoidable circumstances, others could be the result of malpractice instead.

Source: Cleveland Clinic, "How Safe Is Anesthesia? 5 Things You Should Know," accessed April 27, 2018

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