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Side Effects of Anesthesia in Children

By Dr. David Velkoff

If there was a single wish that every parent could make come true for their child, it’s for their child to be blessed with a long, healthy life with minimal medical problems.

Unfortunately, life isn’t always so accommodating, and when the news comes from the doctor that your child has a medical emergency requiring surgery, the mind can race to the worst possible outcome. 

After the shock wears off, parents will undoubtedly have serious questions for the doctor: What happens now? How serious is it? Will my baby be okay?

Hopefully, the medical emergency will not be serious; however, even if the surgery is minor, there are still hidden risks that parents need to be aware of, especially when it comes to the use of anesthesia in children under 3 years of age.

Anesthesia Dangers in Children

The use of anesthesia during surgery has become so commonplace that most people don’t think much of it.

However, there are some risks of anesthesia in young children that go beyond the usual fatigue, dizziness, and nausea that may be associated with the use of anesthesia. As it turns out, young children and multiple exposures to anesthesia might not mix well at all, and the child might have an increased probability of some long lasting cognitive problems as a result.

For many years, I have communicated to the parents of patients that my own personal belief, based on treating thousands of patients, is that exposure to prolonged anesthesia or multiple exposures to anesthesia at an early age may be toxic to a young child's developing brain. It may increase the incidence of neurodevelopmental disorders as the child becomes older. My belief was based on clinical experience and medical intuition, which research now confirms.

Anesthesia and ADHD

At the annual meeting of the International Anesthesia Society in Vancouver, B.C., reported by Yahoo-Medical and News-Medical.Net, research data suggests that infants and young children may experience higher rates of cognitive difficulties and learning disabilities if they are exposed to anesthesia.

Randall Flick, M.D., of the Mayo Clinic, also reported at the conference on their findings that "multiple exposures to anesthesia before the age of two are a significant risk factor for the development of ADHD."

The age of the child at the time of exposure, the duration of the exposure, and the number of anesthetics were all key factors. He stated that a single exposure did not seem to have an effect.

Concerning a single exposure to anesthesia, I would disagree and state that a single exposure for an extended duration could have a negative effect.

Children under four years old, who were under anesthesia for two or more hours, had at least two times a higher risk of developing ADHD.

Balancing the Risks

The practice of Medicine always has to weigh "risk vs. benefit" with any treatment procedure, and postponing necessary surgery could cause children more harm than exposure to anesthesia.

However, at this recent conference, it was suggested that physicians should minimize the length of time a young child is exposed to anesthesia as well as the number of exposures to anesthesia, so these are things to discuss with your doctor.

With the growing body of evidence that multiple exposures to anesthesia may have harmful effects on developing brains, it would be prudent to consider postponing elective surgery when possible, until the child is at least four years old (as long as postponing surgery does not cause harm to the child or put the child at risk). In many cases, surgery cannot be delayed, and the anesthesia risks will simply need to be taken.

On a hopeful note, the University of California, Department of Anesthesia, reported that in lab animals where the anesthesia induced cognitive injury, developmental issues could be overcome with an intervention. This gives more hope to the human model that any anesthesia-related problems can similarly be overcome with proper treatment. 

Finally, to maximize a child's healthy development, it is important to remember that every year is impactful in developing their foundation for the future, and the effect of each year is cumulative.

A Message to Parents

When a child becomes afflicted with various health problems, parents are often quick to put the blame on themselves.

I have always felt that it is beneficial and anxiety-reducing to help parents understand what may have caused or contributed to their child's ADD / ADHD or learning disability. I have seen many times how this information on the toxic effects of anesthesia in children can help parents stop blaming themselves for the child's neuro-physiologic disorder. The parents had no choice because the surgery and anesthesia were medically necessary.

In short, parents really shouldn’t waste energy on blaming themselves; instead, they should look to see what can be done to improve their child’s situation.

The truth of the matter is that even if your child has ADD or a learning disability, there are ways to achieve significant symptom reduction and help your child live a long and fulfilling life.

How the Drake Institute Can Help

At the Drake Institute, we specialize in the non-drug treatment of both ADD and ADHD using advanced qEEG brain mapping and Neurofeedback as our main protocols.

These procedures allow us to examine which regions or networks of the brain have become dysregulated in different neurophysical disorders, and as a result, we are able to create custom-tailored treatment programs for each of our patients.

Our treatment programs focus on: normalizing or optimizing brain functioning and strengthening self-regulation for focusing and task completion.

Because of these treatment methods, our patients can achieve long-term symptom reduction that isn’t dependent on the use of medication. As is well known, medications can sometimes bring about unwanted side-effects.

Contact the Drake Institute Today

If your child is having a difficult time paying attention in class or focusing on their homework, please call the Drake Institute today to schedule a no-cost screening. We have over 25 years of experience treating both adults and children for ADD and ADHD, so please, don’t hesitate to reach out to us for help.

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