Can General Anesthesia Be Deadly?


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When we undergo surgery, whether major or minor, we know that there are risks involved. We recognize the importance of skilled surgeons and rely on their expertise to ensure that a procedure goes smoothly and the intended result is achieved. However, we usually don’t spare a thought for the anesthesia. Most surgeries would not be possible without it, but it’s not without its risks. While the dangers associated with anesthesia are usually low, serious injuries and death are still possible.

What Is Anesthesia?

Anesthesia is a method to control pain using medications called anesthetics. There are three main types of anesthesia:

  • Local: numbs a small area, such as a dentist injecting lidocaine before filling a cavity.
  • Regional: numbs a specific region of the body, like an epidural during childbirth.
  • General: numbs the entire body and causes a complete loss of consciousness.

Anesthesia is administered by either an anesthetist (an anesthesia nurse) or an anesthesiologist (an anesthesia doctor).

Can Anesthesia Be Deadly?

In general, anesthesia is very safe, and most deaths that occur around the time of surgery are not caused by the anesthesia itself. Death as a result of general anesthesia can occur, but it’s very rare. It’s estimated that the risk of death is less than 1 in 100,000, but exact numbers are difficult to determine due to their rarity. 

When death is caused by anesthesia, it’s usually due to:

  • An allergic reaction to a medication given during anesthesia.
  • Difficulties putting in the breathing tube.
  • Reduced blood supply to major organs caused by a drop in blood pressure.
  • Human error (negligence), such as a lack of vigilance, errors in medication dosages, or poor maintenance and control of the anesthetic equipment.

What Increases The Risk Of Death?

The risk of an allergic reaction to an anesthetic is very low (less than 1 in 10,000), and most allergies are caught early, treated appropriately, and the patient recovers completely. However, it’s very important to inform your anesthetist of any family members who have had trouble with anesthesia in the past, as allergic reactions to anesthetics can sometimes be inherited.

Breathing tubes are usually easy enough for a trained anesthetist to insert, but difficulties can arise and quickly lead to an emergency situation. Things as simple as large front teeth or a large tongue can block the airway enough to make a breathing tube difficult to insert. Limited mobility in the neck or facial injuries can further complicate this important aspect of anesthesia.

A reduction in blood pressure is expected during anesthesia, but your anesthetist should be prepared with medications to correct this. However, blood pressure stabilization can be difficult in some patients, particularly those with atherosclerosis (“hardened” arteries). When not corrected soon enough, organs like the kidneys and brain are quickly damaged by a lack of blood supply.

Human error, unfortunately, is inevitable whenever humans are involved. While the risk of errors directly caused by the anesthetist is low, people are bound to make mistakes from time to time. Unfortunately, in this instance, a seemingly small error can lead to wrongful death.

I Believe Anesthesia Caused The Death Of A Loved One. Was It Negligence?

While death due to anesthesia is rare, it is certainly possible. Sometimes it’s completely unexpected and unavoidable, but there are ways an anesthetist or anesthesiologist can reduce the risks. Preparation is essential, such as obtaining information from the patient about their family history with anesthesia and speaking with the primary doctor and surgeon about any health conditions that may alter or interfere with the medications needed during the procedure. Suppose the medical professional administering anesthesia does not adequately prepare for each patient’s needs and risk factors. In that case, they could be considered negligent if anything goes wrong with the anesthesia component of the procedure.

In an emergency, all of the typical planning goes out the window. The safety of the anesthesia provided to the patient will rely more on the skill level, knowledge, experience, and vigilance of the anesthetist or anesthesiologist in charge during the procedure.

When in doubt about the true cause of death during any surgical procedure, it’s best to get a second opinion.

I Think My Loved One Was A Victim Of Negligence. What Should I Do?

If you have any doubts about whether a loved one’s death was caused by a doctor or an anesthetist’s negligence, it’s essential to act quickly. Generally speaking, there is a two-year statute of limitations in Pennsylvania for medical malpractice, which means you only have two years to file your claim from the date of death. These cases can be complicated and may require extensive research, interviews, and consultation with various experts, so any delay will make it more challenging to uncover the truth and get justice for your family. 

Why Choose Ross Feller Casey?

Ross Feller Casey’s team of lawyers has what it takes to get your family the justice and compensation you deserve. We have a leading team of doctor-lawyers on staff, so we understand the medical complexities involved in anesthesia-related deaths. Over the past five years alone, we’ve recovered more than $1 billion for our clients, including more than 50 $10-million-plus verdicts and settlements. Our consultations are free, and you won’t pay us a dime unless we win your case.

Disclaimer: Ross Feller Casey, LLP provides legal advice only after an attorney-client relationship is formed. Our website is an introduction to the firm and does not create a relationship between our attorneys and clients. An attorney-client relationship is formed only after a written agreement is signed by the client and the firm. Because every case is unique, the description of awards and summary of cases successfully handled are not intended to imply or guarantee that same success in other cases. Ross Feller Casey, LLP represents catastrophically injured persons and their families in injury and wrongful death cases, providing legal representation in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.