Think back to medical practices of earlier eras and many of them now seem barbaric, futile or even silly -- amputations with little more than a shot of alcohol to ease the pain, bleeding sick people with leeches. But not all of those questionable practices are ancient history. Last month, the New England Journal of Medicine published a study indicating that doctors who minimize the use of anesthetics during surgery on infants may well be endangering their young patients' lives.
For many years, surgery was performed on infants with little or no pain relief because doctors feared that the medication would dangerously suppress the child's blood pressure. Moreover, there was doubt that the infants felt pain as older people do -- or that it would have any lasting effects. Light anesthesia -- enough to make a child unconscious, but not enough to keep its body from sensing pain and reacting to it -- is still common, even though narcotics have been developed that make deep anesthesia safe for infants.
The recent study, which compared the effects of deep and light anesthesia on babies, uncovered distinct advantages in protection from pain. Researchers found that pain took a measurable toll on the lightly anesthetized babies. Their bodies produced high levels of stress hormones, they were more prone to infections, their blood clotted unnecessarily and acid built up in their muscle tissue.