Did Anesthesia Cause Brain Damage During My Loved One’s Surgery?


In the United States, almost 60,000 patients receive general anesthesia every day. While the vast majority of procedures go as planned, occasionally, something goes wrong, and a patient is left with a serious injury. While brain damage due to anesthesia is rare, it can have catastrophic and long-lasting consequences for the patients and families affected by it.

What Is Anesthesia?

Anesthesia is a way to control pain using medications called anesthetics. Anesthesia can be local, regional, or general. Local anesthesia only numbs a small area, such as injecting lidocaine into the skin to painlessly remove a mole. Regional anesthesia numbs a specific region of the body, like a spinal block before a C-section. General anesthesia numbs 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 (an anesthesia nurse) or an anesthesiologist (an anesthesia doctor).

Can Anesthesia Cause Brain Damage?

Brain damage can and does happen due to improper anesthesia administration, but it happens so infrequently that the risk has not been put into numbers. Because of this, doctors typically don’t even mention it as a potential risk before undergoing surgery. However, for the affected individuals and their families, it can be devastating.

When anesthesia causes brain damage, it’s because the brain was deprived of oxygen at some point. This is typically the result of a stroke but can also occur if there’s any difficulty in inserting the breathing tube. Risk of stroke during surgery is higher:

  • In older people
  • In people with atherosclerosis (hardened arteries)
  • In anyone who’s had a previous stroke
  • In surgeries of the head, neck, or heart

Many of these things are out of the anesthetist’s control. Still, careful planning, monitoring, and quick thinking if things start to take a turn for the worst can significantly reduce the risk of any permanent damage. However, when an anesthetist or anesthesiologist does not properly plan for a procedure, does not monitor vital signs carefully, or does not follow generally accepted best practices, the risk of injury due to their negligence increases.

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

While anesthesia errors that result in serious injury or death are extremely rare, they are also highly preventable. The sad fact is that the injuries that do occur are often due to negligence or carelessness. When this negligence results in brain damage, there may be grounds for a medical malpractice lawsuit.

The anesthesiologist’s (or anesthetist’s) job is to monitor their patient’s vital signs during surgery. This includes things like blood volume, blood pressure, heart rate, and blood oxygenation, among others. However, suppose the anesthesiologist is distracted, turns off alarms, leaves the room, or doesn’t notice that a patient’s vitals are dropping. In that case, irreversible damage can occur in a matter of minutes. They may also provide the patient with an incorrect medication or the wrong dose of the right medicine. Any of these situations can result in permanent brain damage.

It’s important to note here that not all cognitive dysfunction after surgery is necessarily due to negligence and doesn’t even signal that the brain has been damaged. There’s a condition called “postoperative delirium,” or “postoperative cognitive dysfunction,” that can result in memory and learning problems that can 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 side effect of anesthesia rather than from their anesthetist’s negligence.

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

It’s normal to feel drowsy, be slightly confused, or have a headache after having a general anesthetic. These symptoms can sometimes carry on for a few days or even weeks after an operation. This does not mean that the brain has been damaged. However, if you or your loved one have experienced any of the following symptoms, then brain damage may be the cause:

  • Seizures
  • Abnormal pupil dilation
  • Weakness in extremities
  • Loss of coordination
  • Prolonged or extreme confusion
  • Aggressive, or otherwise abnormal behavior
  • Slurred speech

It can be challenging determining whether an injury such as brain damage is due to negligence on the part of the anesthetist or if it’s just an unfortunate, unavoidable, and unpredictable outcome after surgery. Generally speaking, Pennsylvania only allows two years from the date of an injury to file a claim. So it’s important to find a qualified attorney as soon as possible. The process for proving negligence in cases like this can be quite involved, and it can be difficult to uncover the truth. If you’ve been left with doubts about the cause of a brain injury, don’t delay in seeking help to get the justice you and your family deserve.

Mario Cattabiani is the Director of Communications at Ross Feller Casey in Philadelphia, PA.