It’s never a good time to need emergency surgery, but undergoing an operation during the Covid-19 pandemic brings added risks. That’s why a panel of experts has released guidelines regarding the use of anesthesia during the coronavirus outbreak. The American Society of Regional Anesthesia and Pain Medicine and the European Society of Regional Anesthesia and Pain Therapy recommend that regional anesthesia (in which only the region around the surgery site is numbed, and the patient often sedated) should be strongly considered instead of general anesthesia (in which the patient is unconscious and connected to a breathing machine) for surgery that can’t be delayed. The groups say general anesthesia poses increased Covid-19–related risks to both the patient and the surgical team.
For patients, regional anesthesia is associated with fewer post-op complications than general anesthesia, not the least of which is respiratory infection—which could have serious implications if the patient has or develops Covid-19. General anesthesia also increases the surgical team’s risk of becoming exposed to the virus during placement and removal of the breathing tube.
The most common types of regional anesthesia, usually administered by injection, are spinal anesthesia, epidural anesthesia, and peripheral nerve block.
All forms of regional anesthesia are considered safer than general anesthesia. Risks associated with regional anesthesia include severe headache (in the case of spinal anesthesia) and nerve damage in the area the anesthetic is administered.
What you should do
You can request the type of anesthesia you will receive for certain situations, according to the American Society of Regional Anesthesia and Pain Medicine. Your anesthesiologist can inform you of available options for your situation.
This article first appeared in the July 2020 issue of UC Berkeley Health After 50.