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Anesthesia: Types, Errors, and Complications

Updated June 27, 2020 | By Wilson Kehoe Winingham staff

Anesthesia is a broad term for the drugs used during surgeries and painful medical procedures to prevent patients from feeling pain, either through localized numbing or through induced unconsciousness. Depending on the type of procedure and the combination of drugs used, there are a few different ways anesthesia can work.

The different combinations of drugs have their own risks that add to the potential complications of a medical procedure. The nature of anesthetics means patients need to be monitored carefully, and no amount of negligence is acceptable.

Types of Anesthesia

The nature of your medical procedure effects what type of anesthesia you might need—not every surgery requires complete general anesthesia or induced unconsciousness. These combinations of drugs have different purposes, and while some are safer than others, no medical procedure is completely free of risk.

Local Anesthesia

If you need a very specific area to be numb for a medical procedure, local anesthesia will be used. Minor procedures such as stitches use local anesthesia, and some dentists and dermatologists use it for their work. It’s one of the safer forms of anesthesia and is either injected or applied as a topical solution.

Regional Anesthesia

A patient that doesn’t need to be unconscious but needs a larger section of the body numb for a more major procedure will likely receive regional anesthesia. Epidurals and spinal anesthesia use regional anesthetics. They are introduced, often by a gradual or single-dose injection, near a nerve or group of nerves to numb body parts during a procedure.

General Anesthesia

If a patient needs to be completely unconscious, general anesthetic will be utilized. Large incisions and long operations require general anesthetics. General anesthesia has a very high risk: Patients tend to be so sedated that they can’t breathe without help and must have their heart patterns and oxygen supply monitored carefully throughout the procedure.

Types of Anesthesia Errors

Surgery is risky in general. The use of anesthesia just adds to the list of potential risks. Anesthesia requires constant monitoring, especially during major surgical procedures.

It is important for the anesthesiologist to have an updated medical history and allergy list for the patient. Knowing those things will help determine the proper chemical cocktail. Still, mistakes can happen when the margin between adequate sedation and permanent damage is so small.

Typically, everything goes as planned. It is important, however, to understand all the risks prior to any operation.

Local Anesthetic Errors

Local anesthesia is relatively safe. The main concern with local anesthesia is the risk of the chemical reaching the blood supply. Getting the anesthetic chemical into the bloodstream can cause complications of the heart rate and blood pressure. With topical gels, this is a very unlikely event. For small injections, the risk is still unlikely, but it is possible.

Regional Anesthetic Errors

In order to stop sensation from, for example, both legs, the anesthesiologist might numb the nerves in the spine that are associated with the legs. This method is called a nerve block. Nerve block is accomplished with either a gradual epidural injection or a single dose injection of anesthesia. The goal is to effectively numb the area without getting the chemicals into the blood, as well as to not damage any nerves in the spine.

Injuries from regional anesthesia such as nerve block can include heart complications such as heart attacks or high blood pressure as well as nerve damage.

General Anesthetic Errors

Once someone has has gone under general anesthesia, the body becomes very relaxed—so much so that the muscles in the throat have to be held open to keep the body breathing normally. This process is called intubation. Errors during intubation are the most common during general anesthesia and can include throat damage, damage to the teeth, and difficulty breathing, possibly leading to a heart attack.

Common Anesthesia Complications

The right combination of drugs in surgery or uncomfortable procedures can make the process easier for patients, especially for regional and general anesthesia. Depending on the procedure, skeletal muscles should be relaxed, patients should be immobile and unable to feel pain, and patients can be unconscious and unable to remember their experience.

Any mistakes in administering anesthesia could have physical, mental, and emotional consequences for a patient and could even be lethal. A negligent action or failure to act could cause many complications, including breathing in of stomach contents, hypertension, stroke, severe brain damage, and anesthesia awareness—waking up during a procedure without the ability to let the surgeon know.

Patients should constantly be monitored to ensure that these complications don’t happen to them. Proof that a healthcare provider didn’t monitor appropriately could be grounds for a medical malpractice lawsuit.

How Anesthesia Errors Happen

Anesthesia errors are usually the result of human error. Surgical suites are hectic areas with a lot going on and many decisions that need to be made quickly. It’s not just the operating room itself where mistakes can happen, however: An anesthesiologist who isn’t aware of a patient’s medical history or doesn’t properly educate the patient on the risks and other conditions could be liable for injuries.

There are several situations where an anesthesiologist can make a simple, preventable mistake that leads to life-altering or fatal consequences for a patient—and potentially a medical malpractice case for survivors and families:

  • A poor explanation of the procedure and its requirements at any stage before, during, or after administering the drugs
  • Miscommunication in the surgical room
  • Administering anesthesia too late
  • Too much or not enough anesthesia
  • Keeping a patient under anesthesia for too long
  • Failing to react to poor reactions to the medicine
  • Improperly administering oxygen
  • Turning off warning alarms on vital equipment
  • Allowing oxygen machines near hot surgical devices

Any of these errors could mean that your anesthesiologist or surgical team didn’t follow an appropriate standard of care.

Contact a Medical Malpractice Attorney Today

Anesthesiologists are part of your medical team, just like doctors and surgeons, and they are required to provide you with a standard level of care. No matter how major or minor your procedure is, if there is anesthesia involved, there is a level of risk that needs to be considered.

If you or a loved one have been injured as a result of anesthesia errors, you are urged to contact the attorneys of Wilson Kehoe Winingham. An experienced Indianapolis medical malpractice lawyer at WKW can help you get the compensation you deserve. Call 317.920.6400 or fill out an online contact form for a free, no-obligation case evaluation.

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