When undergoing surgery or an invasive procedure, the patient is generally treated with anesthesia. Anesthesia can include local injection to numb the area or general anesthesia to put the patient “under.” Even though anesthesia is common, many patients are unaware that anesthesia may have long-term cognitive impacts, especially in older individuals.
An article in Scientific American, “The Hidden Dangers of Going Under,” discusses some of the possible lingering side effects of anesthesia, which may linger for years after the operation.
General Anesthesia in Surgical Treatments
Most invasive surgeries involve general anesthesia. This includes surgical treatments like joint replacement, angioplasty, stent placement, hysterectomy, gallbladder removal, and heart bypass surgery. General anesthesia is also used for dental surgeries like wisdom teeth removal.
With general anesthesia, the patient is unconscious and unable to feel sensation and the central nervous system activity is suppressed, making the patient immobile. General anesthesia drugs can include paralytics, inhaled gases, or IV drugs.
After the procedure, the anesthesiologist monitors the patient as they return to consciousness, including monitoring their vitals until they can maintain an open airway and breath on their own.
Hidden Dangers of Going Under
Some of the complications of anesthesia occur shortly after the anesthesia wears off. This includes postoperative delirium. Postoperative delirium is not uncommon and usually peaks between one and three days after the operation. Delirium may also be more common in older patients with preexisting mental deficits and depression.
Susan Baker, an 81-year-old professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health was recovering from spinal surgery when she began to hallucinate that a fire was burning through the hospital towards her. She buzzed the nurse’s station for help but by the next day, she was back to normal. She called it “the most terrifying experience I ever had.”
Long Term Cognitive Dysfunction From Anesthesia
There is also a potential for long-term cognitive impairment after the use of anesthesia in some patients. Postoperative cognitive dysfunction (POCD) is a decline in cognitive function that can last up to a year or longer after the surgery. In some patients, POCD can last for several years and is more common in older patients and those with other cognitive impairments.
Long-term POCD is still being studied and may be associated with the body’s inflammatory response to surgery. Memory and behavioral control may be the most impacted areas of the brain after anesthesia. Symptoms may include a lack of attention, memory loss, and loss of interest in activities previously enjoyed.
Investigating the Cause of Delirium
Researchers are still evaluating the causes of POCD and postoperative delirium. One factor may be the depth of sedation of the patient. A researcher at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine evaluated 114 patients undergoing hip surgery. The anesthesiologist gave 57 patients enough propofol to induce regional anesthesia (in the area of the hip surgery) and 57 patients general anesthesia. The number of patients that became delirious with general anesthesia was twice as many as those with regional anesthesia.
Anesthesia Injury Attorneys
If a loved one suffered a brain injury as the result of anesthesia errors, failure to monitor the patient, or other anesthesia complications, talk to an experienced medical malpractice attorney about your right to compensation. Do not hesitate to contact Gilman & Bedigian today for a free consultation.