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Laughing gas gets the all clear at last

Laughing gas gets the all clear at last

A commonly-used anaesthetic drug used more than one billion times on patients undergoing surgery has finally been declared safe, putting an end to one of modern medicine’s great debates.

While nitrous oxide, better known as ‘laughing gas’, was first used to put patients to sleep more than 160 years ago, increasing concern over possible side effects has seen this icon of anaesthesia increasingly retired in favour of newer, more expensive drugs.

The Alfred Hospital’s director of anaesthesia and perioperative medicine, Professor Paul Myles, told a meeting of more than 4000 anaesthetists and surgeons that is all about to change with results from one of the largest ever anaesthetic drug studies confirming nitrous oxide is safe.

“More than 230 million people undergo surgery each year – including more than two million Australians,” Professor Myles said.

“Small nitrous oxide studies over the past decade have led to conflicting findings, creating uncertainty for doctors looking after patients having major surgery, and also for women in labour, and for parents of children undergoing procedures.”

To reveal the truth Professor Myles and The Alfred hospital (Melbourne, Australia) led a six-year 45-hospital study that monitored more than 7000 surgical patients across Australia, Asia, North America and Europe.

“Patients are at no greater risk of complication when given nitrous oxide over another drug,” Professor Myles said.

“The risk of heart attack, stroke or infection is very low and unaffected by the anaesthetic.

“Although our study did not measure children having surgery, or women using nitrous oxide in the labour ward as pain relief, we can be confident that it is also safe to use in those areas.

“Nitrous oxide is cheap and easy to use and, because it’s been around for a long time, these results are very reassuring for people having surgery, and good news for anaesthetists who use nitrous oxide or want to use it more often.

“Medical research is crucial to help us identify better and safer ways to improve comfort and safety both during and after surgery, and anaesthesia is far safer today than it has ever been.”

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