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Anesthesia: Common Complications and Risks

Anesthesia is a modern medical convenience, meant to alleviate pain and ease stress on the body during medical procedures.  While it helps many, it also carries many risks.  Major complications from anesthesia can be life-threatening, so it is important to know the risks of anesthetics and the best ways to avoid them.

As always, age is a factor: older patients are more susceptible to complications from anesthesia, and younger patients may suffer as well.  Some medicines increase the risk of complications, so make sure to disclose as much as you can to doctors before you are anesthetized.

If local anesthesia is administered improperly and excessively, it can lead to what is called “systemic toxicity” when the anesthetic is absorbed into the bloodstream. Systemic toxicity can cause problems with your breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure.

Regional anesthesia also presents the risk of systemic toxicity, because the anesthetic is injected into nerves or the spinal cord and may also be absorbed into the bloodstream.  Bruising, swelling, or infection at the injection site can also occur.  Anesthesia injected into the spinal fluid can cause what is called a spinal headache, which is more common in younger patients.

General anesthesia arguably carries more risks because it affects the whole body; it is also more likely to cause complications than local or regional anesthesia.  General anesthesia affects routine throat reflexes, increasing the risks for aspiration (when objects or fluid are inhaled into the respiratory tract).  To avoid this complication, patients are usually instructed not to eat or drink for a certain period preceding the administration of anesthesia, so that the stomach is empty.  General anesthesia’s more serious risks include: increase in blood pressure, increase in heart rate, heart attack, stroke, or, in extreme cases, death.

It is important to relate any relevant medical history, including medications, to your doctor and anesthesia specialist to avoid major complications from anesthesia.

For more information, see Web MD’s article on anesthetics.

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