Risk in more detail

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 they can adjust the anaesthetic to keep you unconscious and safe. They are trained  to watch you and all the monitors carefully and in what to do quickly if anything unplanned happens. They work with a trained assistant and have 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 amount  of risk. Also, it might change as you get older. Your anaesthetist will want  to share information about the level of risk  likely with your  anaesthetic. They can also explain to you the  different types of anaesthetic that you could have and what the advantages are of each option . After that,  you can decide with your anaesthetist the ‘best way forward’ for you.  You will want to take account of all the risk and the benefits that the operation will bring to your  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 information  from studies or surveys.s. 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 the exact  facts are not known as they have never been measured. Also, your anaesthetist needs to put the general information together with your personal health and the risk may then change.

How does that risk affect me?

If you  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  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 give you their experienced opinion 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. There are many patient forums on the internet but the quality of the information is very variable and may contain incorrect facts.

Can I do anything to reduce my own risk?

The answer to this is usually  – yes! All the information on this website, starting with Anaesthesia explained and 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, trying to lose some weight or doing  some regular exercise to make you fitter before your operation. You can also read about deep breathing exercises after your operation and taking charge of your own pain control.