Is General Anesthesia Safe?

©G.M. Woerlee, 2005–2024

Is general anesthesia safe? The thought of undergoing anesthesia, and especially of undergoing general anesthesia strikes terror in the hearts of many people. During my preoperative visits (visits before the operation), and in the preoperative assessment clinic (anesthetic risk assessment clinic), I regularly speak with persons whose main fear is not of the operation, nor of the prospect of pain after the operation, nor of the prospect of crippling complications, infections, or death after the operation, but a fear of general anesthesia. And this fear of general anesthesia is not rare - studies by psychiatrists reveal that about 30% of people are more afraid of general anesthesia than the operation itself. Even in developed Western societies, many people regard the insensible and unconscious state of general anesthesia as something very risky. This attitude always reminds me of an attitude expressed in a telling passage in the Quran.

God takes away men's souls upon their death, and the souls of the living during their sleep. Those that are doomed He keeps with Him, and restores the others for a time ordained. Surely there are signs in this for thinking men. (Quran 39:42, Dawood translation)

Actually, fear of general anesthesia is no more than a product of an ages old belief that sleep-like states are very similar to death. But a person undergoing general anesthesia is very definitely not dead, nor in a death-like state.

General anesthesia is not death

A person undergoing general anesthesia is far from being nearly dead, or in a death-like state. General anesthesia is actually very safe, and some desperately sick patients are in better condition under general anesthesia than when awake and breathing by themselves. Their vital functions, such as blood pressure, the amount of blood pumped by their hearts, etc are improved by the anesthesia, extra medicines, and extra oxygen administered by the anesthesiologist.

So people under general anesthesia are far from being nearly dead. Instead they are very much alive, although they are unconscious, unable to speak, to move, to breathe, or to respond in any way to external stimuli.

Chance of dying due to general anesthesia

So what are the chances of dying as a result of general anesthesia and other events. Look at the chances of dying as a result of general anesthesia, pregnancy, and some relatively common planned operations.

This is a wonderful illustration of how public opinion, socio-cultural factors, and rumor determine perceptions. Most women who are to undergo a hysterectomy are not at all afraid of the most deadly procedure — the operation — yet some are scared out of their wits by the thought of general anesthesia, the least deadly of these two things! Furthermore, these women were ecstatically happy during their reproductive lives when they discovered themselves to be pregnant, a condition whose mortality is comparable to that of general anesthesia. They were happy with pregnancy, but afraid of anesthesia. Curious… I explain these things, hoping to comfort these women, while explaining at the same time that statistics and emotions are two different things. The same principles apply to gallbladder and large bowel operations undergone by women. As regards the men who undergo gallbladder and large bowel operations, they were often also ecstatically happy when their sisters, wives, or daughters announced a pregnancy. In other words, they were happy with the risks undergone by these women, but unhappy with anesthesia which has a similar mortality. Also a strange attitude. Even so, I never tell these people of the mortality of the other types of surgery they are about to undergo — this is the responsibility of the surgeon. Furthermore, some people may refuse surgery upon learning these things, even though the complications of their diseases eventually have a higher mortality than the surgery they are to undergo - so of course surgery is the better choice, even though it does expose these people to some risk.

Anesthesia and surgery — a blind spot

There is a curious blind spot in the perception of many people. Many people seem to just look at anesthesia alone, seemingly forgetting that anesthesia is necessary to make the operation possible. People never undergo anesthesia without undergoing an operation. So when we talk about the risk of anesthesia, we are not talking about the risk of anesthesia alone, but the risk of anesthesia plus the risk of undergoing an operation. The discussion above clearly shows that the risk of dying due to an operation is generally very much higher than the risk of dying due to anesthesia. Moreover, the risk of dying due to undergoing an operation under anesthesia differs for different types of operation, and is also influenced by the health of the person undergoing the operation. In general, the larger the operation, the greater the risk of dying, and the unhealthier the person undergoing the operation, the greater the risk of dying. The health of a person undergoing an operation is usually expressed in terms of the ASA-score (American Society of Anesthesiologists score).

This is a simple scoring system, which is why there is some variation in how different anesthesiologists score the same patient. In general, the higher the score, the greater the chance of dying as a result of anesthesia and surgery. This is clearly shown by multiple studies. The reader should realize that these figures are statistics for large numbers of patients who underwent all manner of operations ranging from trivial to major. Accordingly, they should not in any way be misconstrued as applying to any specific individual, or to any specific combination of anesthesia and surgery. What these figures do show, is that unhealthy individuals are more likely to die as a result of anesthesia and surgery than healthy individuals.

Final remarks

The conclusion is evident — for healthy patients undergoing a planned operation, general anesthesia is about as dangerous as pregnancy in a healthy woman. In other words, general anesthesia is very safe. However, the poorer the health of a person, the older they are, and the higher the risk of the operation, the greater the chance of dying as a result of anesthesia and surgery. There are actually very few conditions where anesthesia is likely to be lethal for a patient, e.g. extremely severe aortic stenosis, major coronary artery stenosis, someone in deep shock, etc. Fortunately, these conditions occur very seldom. In general, for nearly all people, as the discussion above clearly demonstrates, anesthesia is very safe and far less dangerous than the effects of surgery.

PANSURAS® is a computer program designed to facilitate improvement of perioperative anesthesia and surgical management quality within hospitals!

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