Anesthesia in Early Childhood: Hidden Dangers?

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A new Swedish study suggests that children exposed to surgical anesthesia before the age of 4 may have slightly lower school grades as well as IQ scores in their late teen years.

Early use of anesthesia might affect cognitive ability

Experts examined the medical records of 2 million kids born in Sweden from 1973 to 1993. The researchers focused on nearly 33,500 children who had one surgery and one exposure to anesthesia by the age of 4 and then did not experience any surgery or hospitalization again until at least the age of 16. They compared those children to nearly 160,000 children who did not experience surgery or anesthesia until the age of 16. The scientists also observed 3,640 children who experienced more than one surgical procedure with anesthesia. Kids who were exposed to anesthesia before the age of 4 had school grades with 0.41 percent lower than children having no exposure to anesthesia at age of 16. And, their IQ scores were 0.97 percent lower at the age of 18.

According to the study, for kids who underwent two surgical procedures before the age of 4, the average school grades were 1.41 percent lower. For those experienced three or more anesthesia exposures, the school grades were 1.82 percent lower.

While the more vulnerable subgroups of children may exist, the low general difference in academic performance after childhood exposure to surgery is reassuring.

Anesthesia use in pediatric practice is believed to be safe

Although kids who were exposed to surgical anesthesia by the age of 4 may have slightly lower grades than others, the difference is very small so parents should not be concerned about the effects. A new study from JAMA Pediatrics showed that the low general difference in academic performance after childhood exposure to surgical anesthesia is not, in any way, depressing.
It is believed that surgical anesthesia has fewer impacts as compared to the mother’s level of education, gender, and the month of birth, which are all responsible for a child’s intelligence. The authors of the research are convinced that parents should push through with the needed surgery as the findings are not as alarming as many believe it is.

Based on several animal studies, anesthesia exposure may cause changes in the brain development. However, the doses and durations that are used in pediatric practice do not lead to structural changes. Anesthesia is believed to have little to no visible effect once kids under four years of age experience surgery. Accordingly, having been exposed to anesthesia during the surgery will not likely influence intelligence or academic performance of children in the future.


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