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Exploring the Risks of Anesthesia

Written by Berkowitz


Experienced Medical Malpractice Attorney Serving Victims of Anesthesia Errors or Negligence in Connecticut

In most cases, the use of general anesthesia goes without complications and smoothly. It is, after all, mostly safe. If it were not, it would not be widely used in hospitals across the country. Even those with health conditions can use general anesthesia for procedures.

However, there is always a risk of complication with any medical procedure. A person could be entirely healthy and still suffer complications. Other times, the anesthesiologist, nurse, or another healthcare provider accidentally causes harm through negligence.

Anesthesia Awareness

There are rare side effects to anesthesia, but a physician is required to inform you of these risks completely before obtaining your consent.

For example, one to two patients out of every 10,000 may suffer a condition known as unintended intraoperative awareness. The person is awake, but cannot speak or move to indicate such. Muscle relaxants are given to patients undergoing surgery to ease the transition, but those muscle relaxants make it hard for them to let doctors know they are awake or suffering pain.

In this case, a patient not only has the physical pain but long-term psychological trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from experience.

The Biggest Risk of Anesthesia: Brain Damage or Death

The risk of a fatality under anesthesia is minimal. For a healthy person with a planned surgical procedure, the risk is much lower. For a sick person with a planned procedure, the risk slightly increases. Most anesthesia errors occur in emergency surgery situations, where there is limited time to prepare or get a full history from the patient.

What Puts a Person at High Risk for Brain Damage or Death?

When assessing the risks of anesthesia, you must realize that all surgical procedures and medical treatments carry risk. Even an over-the-counter medication like Tylenol has its risks.

However, when a person undergoes surgery, it is the surgeon and anesthesiologist’s job to assess the patient’s level of risk, discuss those risks with the patient, and ensure they are aware of the likelihood that these risks become a reality based on their health history.

How Anesthesia Can Turn Fatal

The risk of death from anesthesia is small, but that does not mean it does not happen. However, when a death occurs, it is often due to one of the following:

  • Allergic Reaction – Allergic reactions are one of the leading causes of anesthesia-related complications and fatalities. A life-threatening reaction is small, and even when one occurs, often the patient recovers. An anesthetist is skilled at handling allergic reactions, but the patient must also disclose their allergies to the anesthesiologist so that they are aware of the risks.
  • Difficulties with Breathing Tubes – Once a person is under anesthesia, the anesthesiologist inserts a breathing tube. This tube allows the patient to receive adequate oxygen when they can no longer breathe themselves. However, the anesthesiologist may encounter issues, which leads to a severe deprivation of oxygen for the brain and major organs.
  • Reduced Blood Supply or Oxygen – Another common cause of anesthesiology-related deaths is reduced blood supply. Most medications used during the procedure cause the blood pressure to lower. However, when a person has hardened arteries, the blood reduction could significantly deprive organs of blood, which provides oxygen. Therefore, they could suffer organ failure.

What Might Increase a Patient’s Risk for Complication or Death?

An individual could have an adverse reaction to anesthesia or even suffer a fatality when certain factors are present. A surgeon is required to discuss a patient’s risk of death during a procedure with them, and the anesthesiologist too.

Some reasons a person may have an increased risk of anesthesia-related fatality include:

  • Chronic or Long-Term Medical Conditions – Chronic medical conditions, including lung problems, kidney disease, diabetes, and heart disease can all increase the risk of death during anesthesiology and any surgical procedure. Also, these conditions increase risk the older the patient becomes.
  • Ill or Unwell Before Surgery – Ideally, surgeons want a healthy patient when they perform surgery, but not all patients are well or free from illness. A person with a severe disease or surgical emergency, such as internal bleeding, requires surgery despite their health. However, when the patient is unwell, the risks of complication increase.
  • Surgery on Delicate Organ Structures – Certain areas of the body increase the risk for errors and death during surgery and anesthesia. For example, surgery on the heart is complicated and delicate. A patient is often under anesthesia for hours, which heightens the risk of complication and death.
  • Emergency Surgeries – Surgery done in situations of emergency increase the risk of complication compared to a surgical procedure planned. Also, the patient is more likely to be unwell or unhealthy; therefore, he or she will have an increased risk for complications or death.

The Risk of Brain Damage During Anesthesia

Brain damage is more likely to occur than death when complications arise from anesthesia. Brain damage results in the death or permanent damage to the brain’s cells. This occurs when there is head trauma too, but in the surgical setting, it typically indicates a lack of oxygen and blood flow.

The Symptoms of Moderate to Severe Brain Trauma

A person that has suffered brain injury during their surgical procedure might have convulsions, dilation of the eyes, inability to wake from their sleep, weakness, loss of coordination, confusion, or permanently be in a coma.

Typically, there are two reasons why a patient could experience brain damage during the surgical procedure.

Stroke During Surgery

A stroke that occurs during operation, such as a blood clot that blocks blood supply to the brain, can lead to a devastating and irreversible amount of brain damage. The blood supply stops quickly to the brain, which means no oxygen reaches the brain or other vital organs. The cells in the area where blood is lacking die.

The risk of stroke increases for individual patients, such as those over the age of 65 years or patients with a history of stroke. Also, a person having surgery on the neck, head, or heart have a heightened risk for suffering an intraoperative stroke.

The combined effects of anesthesia and surgery lead to the stroke, but also a stroke can occur up to ten days post-op.

Not Enough Oxygen to the Brain

Rarely, brain damage occurs because the brain does not receive enough oxygen. This could be an issue with the breathing tube, which delivers oxygen to the lungs and brain.

Reviewing the Statistics of Lawsuits and Anesthesia Errors

Anesthesiologists have a high rate for malpractice suits. In fact, Medscape performed a study that found male physicians were more likely to have a lawsuit than females. Also, while not the most sued, most anesthesiologists will have at least one malpractice claim in their lifetime.

The common cause of these lawsuits includes:

  • Failure to save the patient’s life;
  • Neurological deficits or injuries;
  • Overdose of medication;
  • Dental injuries;
  • Surgical injuries;
  • Hospital infections;
  • Airway errors;
  • Cardiac arrest during surgery.

Interestingly, anesthesiologists are more likely to be sued later in their careers. Those who are 70 or older are at the highest risk for error, while those 34 years or younger have the lowest risk. For each five-year increment, the risk of a lawsuit increases dramatically for these physicians.

Exploring Options for an Anesthesia-Related Lawsuit

The administration of anesthesia is complicated and risky. It can include a risk of too much or too little anesthesia administered, the use of the wrong type, or failure to review the patient’s medical history. However, when these errors occur, many wonder who is actually accountable.

Sometimes it is the anesthesiologist, while other times it is the hospital.

The Three Types of Anesthesia Involved in Injury Cases

  1. General Anesthesia: The patient is completely unconscious and requires mechanical breathing support.
  2. Regional Anesthesia: Regional anesthesia leaves the patient conscious, but a portion of them is paralyzed, such as a spinal block to numb from the waist down.
  3. Local Anesthesia: Carries the least amount of risk and involves numbing one small area of the body.

The Complications and Risks of Anesthesia

The most common complications are postoperative pain, nausea, vomiting, and temporary confusion. However, these should go away after a few hours and once the anesthetic completely wears off.

Other injuries that might require further medical treatment include:

  • Dental Injuries: Dental injuries, such as a broken tooth or chipped tooth from placing the intubation during the operation. A broken jaw could occur as well, especially if the anesthesiologist is too rough when opening the patient’s mouth.
  • Damage to the Esophagus: Damage to the esophagus or larynx during the procedure could leave a patient with permanent tears, complications, or loss of voice.
  • Respiratory Complications: From lack of oxygen to respiratory failure, a patient suffers lack of oxygen to the brain, which then results in permanent brain damage.
  • Infection: Blood, brain, and respiratory infections can lead to life-threatening conditions, cardiac arrest, and death.

The Errors that Lead to Complications

While some mistakes are unforeseeable, other complications during anesthesia are predictable and even caused by the anesthesiologist’s negligence.

The most typical mistakes seen in these instances include:

  • Giving the wrong dosage of anesthesia
  • Intubating the patient incorrectly and leading to dental or esophageal damage
  • Failure to monitor the patient
  • Failing to recognize complications
  • Intentionally or accidentally turning off the pulse oximeter
  • Failing to monitor oxygen delivery to the patient
  • Failing to give the patient instructions on pre-operative preparation

Proving Negligence

These cases are extremely complicated. Not only do you need an attorney to help you establish negligence, but a crew of medical experts to discover where the error occurred and who deviated from the acceptable standard of care.

Malpractice occurs in many ways, but medical negligence is what determines if you have a case against your provider for anesthesia injuries or death.

To prove that there was negligence, your attorney will hire experts to assess your pre-surgical risk factors, and the operative notes to determine what errors occurred during the procedure.

Speak with a Malpractice Attorney Today

Regardless of what type of injury or what caused that injury, you have the right to receive a higher quality of care from medical providers. Therefore, when a serious injury occurs, you need an advocate there to help you recover compensation.

Contact Berkowitz and Hanna, LLC today to schedule a no-obligation case evaluation. Contact us online to get started.