How Can Anesthesia Cause Brain Damage?


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Around 60,000 Americans are placed under anesthesia for surgery every day. Most of these procedures go as planned, but the consequences can be severe when something goes wrong. While brain damage due to anesthesia is rare, it can have catastrophic consequences for victims and their families.

What Is Anesthesia?

Anesthetics are drugs that numb part or all of the body and can be used locally, regionally, or generally. Local anesthesia numbs a small area, such as when a dentist numbs part of the mouth to fill a cavity. Regional anesthesia numbs a specific region of the body, like when a woman in labor gets an epidural. General anesthesia is used to numb the entire body and causes a complete loss of consciousness. While all anesthesia carries some risk, the largest risks are associated with general anesthesia.

Anesthesia can be administered by either an anesthetist (a nurse) or an anesthesiologist (a doctor). These medical professionals are specially trained in how to administer and monitor patients placed under anesthesia to ensure their safety before, during, and after a surgical procedure.

There are four stages of general anesthesia:

  • Stage 1: Induction - The drug is given, causing the patient to lose consciousness.
  • Stage 2: Excitement - Breathing and heart rate become erratic. Nausea and breath-holding are common, making choking possible.
  • Stage 3: Surgical Anesthesia - Muscles relax, nausea stops, and breathing is slowed. Surgery can proceed.
  • Stage 4: Overdose - Breathing and heart rate falter and potentially stop.

The anesthetist or anesthesiologist’s job is to get the patient to stage 3 as quickly as possible and keep them there until surgery is completed. This can be challenging because people metabolize anesthetics at different rates, and it’s crucial to stop the patient from slipping into stage 2 or stage 4 during surgery. A patient’s medical history also plays a role in planning what other medications and dosage adjustments may be required during the procedure. If the balancing act tips toward stage 2 or 4 at any point, the consequences can be disastrous.

Can Anesthesia Cause Brain Damage?

Brain damage can occur whenever the brain is deprived of oxygen. For example, this can happen if the patient spends too much time in stage 2 and chokes or slips into stage 4. Brain damage can also occur if the breathing tube (usually inserted as the anesthesia takes effect) is placed incorrectly or not quickly enough. A stroke while under anesthesia is also possible and can cause serious brain damage if not noticed and treated immediately. The risk of having a stroke during surgery is increased in elderly people with atherosclerosis (hardened arteries), a previous history of a stroke, or in surgeries on the head, neck, or heart.

Many of these things are out of the anesthetist’s control, but careful planning, monitoring, and quick thinking if things go south can significantly reduce the risk of permanent damage. When an anesthetist or anesthesiologist doesn’t plan properly for a procedure, doesn’t monitor vital signs carefully, or doesn’t follow generally accepted best practices, the risk of injury increases.

How Do I Know If A Loved One’s Injury Was Caused By Negligence?

The anesthesiologist’s job is to monitor their patient’s vital signs during surgery, including blood volume, blood pressure, heart rate, and oxygenation. If the anesthesiologist is distracted, turns off alarms, leaves the room, or just doesn’t notice that a patient’s vitals are dropping, irreversible damage can occur in a matter of minutes. They may also make an error by giving the patient the wrong drug or an incorrect dosage. Any of these situations can result in permanent brain damage, and a medical malpractice suit can be filed against the anesthesiologist, surgeon, and/or hospital.

To complicate matters, cognitive dysfunction after surgery doesn’t necessarily mean that brain damage has occurred. Postoperative delirium, or postoperative cognitive dysfunction, can result in memory and learning problems that may last from days to weeks in some patients. It’s more common in the elderly, people with heart disease (particularly congestive heart failure), Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and people who have previously suffered a stroke. Patients who develop this condition are suffering from an unfortunate known side effect of anesthesia that can occur even when an anesthesiologist does everything right.

I Believe My Loved One Suffered A Brain Injury Due To Anesthesia. What Can I Do?

Feeling drowsy, confused, or having a headache while recovering from a general anesthetic is normal. These symptoms can sometimes carry on for a few days or even weeks after an operation. However, if you or your loved one have experienced any of the following symptoms, then brain damage may have occurred:

  • Seizures
  • Weakness or loss of coordination
  • Prolonged or extreme confusion
  • Aggressive or otherwise abnormal behavior
  • Slurred speech

When brain damage has been confirmed, it can be difficult to determine whether an anesthetist’s negligence is to blame. Unfortunately, sometimes these things are unavoidable and unpredictable outcomes and can occur even when medical professionals do everything right. However, because Pennsylvania law generally only allows two years from the date of an injury to file a claim, it’s important to find a qualified attorney as soon as possible. The process for proving negligence in brain injury cases like this can be quite involved, and it can often take time to uncover the truth.

Why Choose Ross Feller Casey?

The experienced team at Ross Feller Casey has a proven track record of success when it comes to medical malpractice cases. We’ve won more than 50 $10-million-plus verdicts and settlements for our clients and have recovered more than $1 billion in the past five years alone. We have a team of doctor-lawyers on staff, so we understand how difficult these cases can be and what a brain damage diagnosis means for your family’s future. Our team understands that you’ve been through enough, and we strive to ensure that your family gets the compensation and justice you deserve.

Consultations are free, and you won’t owe us a thing unless we win your case. Contact our office today if your family has been affected by an anesthesia-related brain injury.

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.