Inventions that changed the Course of History: Anesthesia


Anesthesia is the temporary loss of sensation induced by drugs that interfere with how nerves communicate. Prior to the advent of modern anesthesia, surgical procedures were often avoided as much as possible. Doctors would have to endure the screams of pain as they operated on a patient. To weaken the sensation of surgical incisions, alcohol, opium, and various herbal remedies were used. Sometimes the patient would be physically knocked unconscious prior to surgery.

It was difficult to control the amount of anesthesia given, which posed a safety issue. Too much anesthesia can cause neurological damage, while too little is ineffective. Nowadays, thanks to technological advances, it is possible to control the dosage of anesthesia required to instate and maintain unconsciousness. It makes surgery safer while ensuring that the patient is not in any pain.

The purpose of anesthesia is to sedate, immobilize, and induce unconsciousness, and inability to feel pain. It functions by absorbing into individual nerves and interfering with the movement of sodium ions. Anesthetics alter the membrane potential of cells in the brain and spinal cord, interfering with the ability of the neuron to send and receive neurotransmitters.

In ancient history, pain management during surgery was a struggle that man had been facing for ages. The origins of surgical anesthesia date back to when ancient Greeks and Romans recorded using a number of plants that had anesthetic qualities.

The quest towards modern anesthesia began in the 14th century when Raymond Lully synthesized ether from sulfuric acid and alcohol, naming it “sweet vitriol”. Ether made general anesthesia possible, but it was flammable and toxic. That discovery was ignored until the 16th century when Valerius Cordus, a German physician and botanist, reinvented ether; and Joseph Priestley, an English theologian, invented nitrous oxide, a compound with similar properties as ether.

It was not until Henry Hickman, an English physician, recognized the potential use of nitrous oxide and ether as anesthetics. The first effective local anesthetic was cocaine. Isolated in 1859, it was first used in eye surgery in 1884. A number of newer local anesthetic agents, many of them derivatives of cocaine, were synthesized in the 20th century, including Eucaine, Amylocaine, Procaine, and Lidocaine.

Applying anesthesia is such critical procedure, that in some cases using anesthesia to suppress the nervous system is more risky than the operation itself. Approximately, one out of 13,000 patients dies from anesthesia-related incidents.

Anesthesia became an important addition to the medical field once it was discovered. Today general anesthesia is administered to millions of patients each year. Due to it, surgeons could perform more complex, time-consuming operations, saving more lives.


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