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Excerpt from the
Handbook on the Late Effects of Poliomyelitis for Physicians and Survivors©


Modern anesthesia has become extremely safe, but many survivors fear it because of reports of problems during and after anesthesia. Potential problems include a greater sensitivity to the paralyzing drugs (muscle relaxants), possible need for mechanical ventilation after surgery, and pain problems after surgery. All survivors, especially those with a history of respiratory involvement, need to tell their surgeon and anesthesiologist about having had polio (Calmes, 1997).

The kind of anesthesia chosen – general, regional, or monitored anesthesia care – depends on what operation is being done, the individual's medical conditions and desires, and the skills of the anesthesiologist and surgeon. There are theoretical reasons to choose regional anesthesia if possible, because it decreases the stress hormone response to surgery (Barker et al., 1995). Planning the proper anesthesia can only take place after the anesthesiologist learns of the survivor's medical problems and takes into consideration the treatment plans for the period after surgery, such as whether mechanical ventilation might be needed, and how pain will be treated.

Past reports of not being able to reverse muscle relaxants, most likely due to drug overdose, have contributed to the fear of general anesthesia. Polio survivors are very sensitive to muscle relaxants because they have fewer neurons to block (Gyermek, 1990). The muscle paralyzing drug curare is rarely used today. Anesthesiologists now choose from better and more controllable muscle relaxant drugs and routinely measure each person's response to muscle relaxants using a nerve stimulator. A safe approach is for the anesthesiologist to use only half the normal dose at first and see how the individual does. More anesthetic muscle relaxant can be added, if needed, and the possibility of overdose is decreased.

No published study documents anesthesia problems in polio survivors. However, some survivors have thought that their typical post-polio symptoms became worse after regional anesthesia.

If spinal anesthesia is used, the current recommendation, for the general population as well as survivors, is to use the local anesthetic bupivacane instead of lidocaine. There are reports of possible nerve damage with lidocaine. It is considered to be safe for dental anesthesia and epidural anesthesia.

Post-operative mechanical ventilation may be necessary to help with breathing after surgery, especially major surgery. More common in the survivor who currently uses mechanical ventilation or needed it in the past, post-operative mechanical ventilation allows the lungs time to recover from the effects of surgery and anesthesia.

Many survivors seem to be very sensitive to pain, particularly in long-paralyzed limbs, and to need additional pain medicine post-operatively. It is important that post-operative pain management be planned. A combination of approaches often works best.

The surgeon can inject local anesthetic at the surgical site; the anesthesiologist can give pain medication, so it is working when the individual awakens; and the patient can be given continuous infusions of pain medications that can be self-adjusted.

One of the most important decisions related to surgery is where the operation should take place. Questions to ask include:

Major medical centers with academic training programs in anesthesiology and an affiliated rehabilitation unit most often meet these criteria. People with fewer post-polio problems might be considered for surgery in an outpatient surgery unit, if it met the criteria above and if the individual has assistance at home after being discharged (see Hospitalization).

One should expect to see the anesthesiologist before having elective surgery to discuss one's health and concerns about anesthesia. If an individual is unable to communicate, it is important that an advocate who knows the potential problems speak with the anesthesiologist. If the anesthesiologist for either elective or emergency surgery does not seem to show proper concern, the individual has the right to refuse surgery until he or she is comfortable with the relationship. However, emergency operations are more difficult because there is little time to plan (see Hospitalization, Emergency).

For any surgery, polio survivors should be in the best possible health pre-operatively.

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