Patients benefitting from anesthesia options

Published 9:48 pm Saturday, August 28, 2010

Going under the knife is never easy, but for years the problems associated with surgery have been compounded by the use of general anesthetics, which were nonetheless a necessary evil of surgery.

Thanks to the growing use of “regional anesthesia,” doctors are now sometimes able to save their patients many of the nasty side effects, the long recovery time and the fear that often are associated with general anesthesia.

“A lot of time it’s common to hear people say they’re more worried about the anesthesia than the actual operation,” said Karen Sickenger, chief of anesthesia at Sentara Obici Hospital. “In the old days, they would have to be completely unconscious, and their entire body would suffer from the effects of anesthesia. Today, we can do a regional block.”


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Regional anesthesia involves numbing the nerves in a specific area, rather than numbing the entire body. It is applied through injection or an epidural.

Doctors at Obici have used regional-anesthesia methods for the past several years, but lately the hospital is focusing on applying it through catheters, according to Sickenger.

It is used in combination with a sedative, so patients aren’t aware of the active procedure.

“A lot of people are worried they’ll be wide awake, but that’s not the case,” Sickenger said. “We block the pain with the regional anesthetic and give them a gentle sedation through an IV so they’re not aware of what’s going on.”

The procedure is most commonly used for knee replacements, ACL surgeries, shoulder arthroscopies, rotator cuff repairs and hand surgeries.

“It’s great for patients who have gotten ill from it in the past or have a medical condition that a general anesthetic might not be best for,” Sickenger said. “It not only works well for surgery, but it’s a great way of controlling the pain afterwards. That’s a big issue for people.”

The anesthetic can last up for several hours, if applied by injection, or for days, if applied through an epidural, which includes the use of a catheter.

“It works better than [intravenous] medications,” Sickenger said. “Those affect every part of your body and are often a narcotic. They have nasty side effects and can cause post-operative confusion in elderly patients. If you can avoid those drugs, most everyone can benefit.”