Is It Safe to Go Under Anesthesia?

We all (80’s and 90’s babies at least) remember the movie Clueless. A wonderful mix of rom-com and social satire, we follow the main character Cher through her every day life in her Hollywood mansion where she uses a computer to match items in her massive wardrobe for her. Just normal everyday stuff, right? Anyway, there are a few scenes that weave cosmetic surgery into the day-to-day life of the characters. One is when Amber (seen in GIF below) uses her recent surgery as an excuse to sit out in gym class.

Another is when Cher describes her mom as a “total Betty” and tells the viewers that her mother passed away when she was very young after a “fluke during a routine liposuction procedure.”

This may actually be where the seed was planted for so many of us who went on to become mothers years after watching this movie. And whether we have decided to have plastic surgery for cosmetic reasons, reconstruction, or breast implant removal surgery, many of us remember that scene and ask ourselves “is it really safe to go under anesthesia?”

To help us answer this question, we turned to our own CRNA, Katie Cooper for her expert advice. When we asked her this question, and specifically how likely serious injury as a result of anesthesia (even for minor cosmetic procedures) is, she had some words of wisdom to share.

“In my mind, for every patient’s safety, it’s… vitally important that you have someone who’s an anesthesia provider who’s licensed and board-certified for any kind of surgery, but particularly plastic surgery. This could be either a CRNA like me: Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist… or a physician anesthesiologist.”

Katie tells us that CRNA’s safely administer more than 45 million anesthetics every year. She says that she often tells patients during her pre-operative call that “Anesthesia is safer than the car ride that you took in to your procedure. So driving your car in or having someone drive you in is actually more risky than undergoing anesthesia.”

Let’s also remember that Clueless was made in 1995, and Cher is referring to her mother who had surgery when she was a baby, so now we’re talking about the 1980’s. Surgical techniques and anesthesiology have come a long way since then! Katie says that “Anesthesia is also 50 times safer than it was in the early 1980s, primarily because we use better medications, we have a better understanding of how anesthesia works, and we can tailor anesthesia to the patient better now than we used to; to their conditions, to the type of surgery, and we also have other options.”

There are three main types of anesthesia:

  1. General anesthesia- where you are put all the way to sleep
  2. Regional anesthesia- where you might get a certain body part or half your body numbed temporarily for the surgery
  3. Monitored anesthesia care- which is mostly more commonly known as conscious sedation, and referred to as MAC by medical providers. Monitored anesthesia care is “somewhere in between, where you could be sedated, you could be awake, you could be anywhere in between, but not going all the way to sleep for the surgery.”

Because there are different types of anesthesia, your providers can tailor your type of anesthesia to your medical history and type of procedure. This lends to the safety of anesthesia because it’s not one-size-fits-all, it is completely customized and all risk factors are taken into account.

Death as a result of general anesthesia where you do go all the way to sleep rarely occurs. According to Katie, it’s roughly 1 in every 200,000, although she says that most of those deaths are occurring in patients with much higher risk factors such as a particularly ill patient, an emergency surgery like a trauma where they’re doing CPR on the patient as you enter the OR, etc.

The patients who are more at risk of death and other complications are older, patients with unmanaged medical conditions, those with a serious medical conditions like a previous heart attack or a previous stroke, and the morbidly obese.

But, she says that for the mostly healthy or semi-healthy patient, the most common side-effects are just nausea and headache. We will discuss preparing for having anesthesia in another post in more detail.

We previously wrote a post on ensuring that your plastic surgeon is board-certified, but we also want you to have the tools to find a board-certified anesthesia provider.

You can search your providers by clicking here. You can also find a full list of patient education and resources on the American Association of Nurse Anesthetists website here.

For now, we want you to know that while anesthesia may not be common place for you, it does not have to be scary.

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