Updated 08 November 2016

Anaesthesia unlikely to impair kids' development

The results of a large study indicate it is unlikely that early childhood anaesthesia poses a long-term risk, which is reassuring for children, parents and caregivers.


Anaesthesia during early childhood surgery poses little risk for intelligence and academics later on, the largest study of its kind suggests.

Results reassuring

The results were found in research on nearly 200,000 Swedish teens. School grades were only marginally lower in kids who'd had one or more common surgeries with anaesthesia before age four, compared with those who'd had no anaesthesia during those early years.

Whether the results apply to sicker children who have riskier surgeries with anaesthesia is not known. But the researchers from Sweden's Karolinska Institute and doctors elsewhere called the new results reassuring, given experiments in young animals linking anaesthesia drugs with brain damage.

Read: Anaesthesia fit?

Previous studies of children have been relatively small, with conflicting results. The new findings, published in JAMA Paediatrics, don't provide a definitive answer and other research is ongoing.

The study authors and other doctors say the harms from postponing surgery must be considered when evaluating any potential risks from anaesthesia in young children.

The most common procedures in the study were hernia repairs; ear, nose or throat surgeries; and abdominal operations. The researchers say the operations likely lasted an hour or less. The study did not include children with other serious health problems and those who had more complex or risky operations, including brain, heart and cancer surgeries.

Little long-term risk

The research involved about 33,500 teens who'd had surgery before age four and nearly 160,000 who did not.

School grades at age 16 were less than half a percent lower on average in teens who'd had one childhood surgery with anaesthesia versus the no-surgery group. Average grades were less than two percent lower among teens who'd had two or more surgeries with anaesthesia.

The researchers also looked at IQ tests given to Swedish boys at age 18 upon joining the military. Scores were about the same for those with one early surgery and the non-surgery group; scores were less than 3 percent lower in boys with three or more early surgeries.

Read: Anaesthesia closer to coma than sleep

The researchers, led by Karolinska's Dr Pia Glatz, noted that factors other than anaesthesia appeared to have a much greater impact on academics and intelligence measures, including mothers' education level.

A journal editorial says the results mean it is unlikely that early anaesthesia poses a long-term risk. The study is "reassuring for children, parents and caregivers and puts the issue of anaesthetic-related neurotoxicity and the developing brain into perspective," the editorial says.

Read more:

Anaesthesia for kids – parents can relax

Is anaesthesia safe?

How to be anaesthesia fit




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