Risks in Perspective

Thinking about risk

Risk and having an anaesthetic
Risk is a part of life. All medical treatments carry risks, and so do many things that we do in life – such as driving on the motorway, swimming in the sea, or even eating certain types of food. Having an anaesthetic is often thought to be especially risky, even though the facts are that very very few people having an anaesthetic these days come to serious harm because of the anaesthetic.

Having an anaesthetic is certainly potentially dangerous, but it is made very much safer by anaesthetists’ training and equipment. Your anaesthetist stays beside you all the way through the anaesthetic and he /she can adjust the anaesthetic to keep you safe and healthy. Careful observation and a swift response are fundamental to the job of your anaesthetist. He/she works with a trained assistant and has access to a range of equipment, medicines and other treatments to bring you safely through your anaesthetic.

Anaesthesia – a risky business?
People vary in how they feel about the same degree of risk. Also, people’s perception of risk changes over their lifetime. Your anaesthetist will aim to share information about the level of risk associated with having an anaesthetic , including how often risks happen. He/she can also explain to you the benefits of different types of anaesthetic . After that, armed with the best information, only you can decide the “best way forward” for you.  You will wish to take account of all aspects of the risk and the benefits that the operation will bring to your quality of life when making any decision.

Where do the facts come from?
Some of the information you are given about risks, including everything in this website, is based on hard facts. For example 'Studies have shown that 1 in 4500 people having a general anaesthetic will get damage to their teeth.' (see section 4: Damage to teeth, lips and tongue).

Other information you may be given will be based on the anaesthetist’s own judgement and experience. This may be because specific facts are not known as they have never been measured. Also, your anaesthetist is thinking about your personal health and circumstances.

So you may like to ask your anaesthetist which information is based on fact, and which on his/her own judgement and experience.

How does that risk affect me?
Let’s think about the risk of damage to teeth (quoted as happening in 1 in 4500 general anaesthetics). You may have a higher risk than that – perhaps you have prominent teeth that are not in very good condition. Or you may have a lower risk than that – perhaps you are not having the kind of anaesthetic that is most often linked to damaged teeth.

So you can find out where your anaesthetist thinks you stand within the overall risk. Are you 'Mr or Ms Average'? – or are you less likely or more likely than the average person to have that risk happen to you?

What else do I need to think about? – risks and benefits
There is always a balance between risk and benefit.
Some operations do not have a guaranteed success rate. And all operations have some risks attached to the surgery itself. So, if you want to make an informed decision, you will need to put together information from your surgeon and your anaesthetist.

I really can’t decide – who can help me?
If you find it difficult to decide what to do – (and many people do) – these are some people who can help you.

  • Your GP or practice nurse who know you well.
  • Your anaesthetist and surgeon. They may be willing to give you their own personal view. But this will be influenced by their own ideas and values, which may not be the same as yours.
  • Other patients who have been through the treatment that is being suggested. This can be especially helpful, but is sometimes difficult to set up. If you are in hospital, your nurses on the ward may be able to find someone for you to talk to you. Or you can ask your GP.

Can I do anything to reduce my own risk?
The answer to this may very well be – yes! All the information on this website, starting with the You and Your Anaesthetic leaflet, tells you if there is anything you can do to help yourself. This might start with giving up smoking or having your teeth checked over, or involve deep breathing exercises after your operation and taking charge of your own pain control.

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