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One of the most common questions I hear from patients immediately prior to their surgical anesthetic is, “Will I have a breathing tube down my throat during anesthesia?”
The answer is: “It depends.”
Let’s answer this question for some common surgeries:
KNEE ARTHROSCOPY: Common knee arthroscopy procedures are meniscectomies and anterior cruciate ligament reconstructions. Anesthetic options include general anesthesia, regional anesthesia, or local anesthesia. Most knee arthroscopies are performed under a general anesthetic, in which the anesthesiologist injects propofol into your intravenous line to make you fall asleep. After you’re asleep, the most common airway tube used for knee arthroscopy is a laryngeal mask airway (LMA). The LMA in inserted into your mouth, behind your tongue and past your uvula, to a depth just superior to your voice box. The majority of patients will breath on their own during surgery. The LMA keeps you from snoring or having significant obstruction of your airway passages. In select patients, including very obese patients, an endotracheal tube (ETT) will be inserted instead of an LMA. The ETT requires the anesthesiologist to look directly into your voice box and insert the tube through and past your vocal cords. With either the LMA or the ETT, you’ll be asleep and will have no awareness of the airway tube except for a sore throat after surgery. A lesser number of knee arthroscopies are performed under a regional anesthetic which does not require a breathing tube. The regional anesthetic options include a blockade of the femoral nerve located in your groin or numbing the entire lower half of your body with a spinal or epidural anesthetic injected into your low back. A small number of knee arthroscopies are done with local anesthesia injected into your knee joint, in combination with intravenous sedative medications into your IV. Why are most knee arthroscopies performed with general anesthesia, which typically requires an airway tube? Because in an anesthesiologist’s hands, an airway tube is a common intervention with an acceptable risk profile. A light general anesthetic is a simpler anesthetic than a femoral nerve block, a spinal, or an epidural anesthetic.
NOSE AND THROAT SURGERIES SUCH AS TONSILLECTOMY AND RHINOPLASTY: Almost all nose and throat surgeries require an airway tube, so anesthetic gases and oxygen can be ventilated in and out through your windpipe safely during the time the surgeon is working on these breathing passages.
ABDOMINAL SURGERIES, INCLUDING LAPAROSCOPY: Almost all intra-abdominal surgeries require an airway tube to guarantee adequate ventilation of anesthetic gases and oxygen in and out of your lungs while the surgeon works inside your abdomen.
CHEST SURGERIES AND OPEN HEART SURGERIES: Almost all intra-thoracic surgeries require an airway tube to guarantee adequate ventilation of anesthetic gases and oxygen in and out of your lungs while the surgeon works inside your chest.
TOTAL KNEE REPLACEMENT AND TOTAL HIP REPLACEMENT: The majority of total knee and hip replacement surgeries are performed using spinal, epidural and/or nerve block anesthesia anesthesia to block pain to the lower half of the body. The anesthesiologist often chooses to supplement the regional anesthesia with intravenous sedation, or supplement with a general anesthetic which requires an airway tube. Why add sedation or general anesthesia to the regional block anesthesia? It’s simple: most patients have zero interest in being awake while they listen to the surgeon saw through their knee joint or hammer their new total hip into place.
CATARACT SURGERY: Cataract surgery is usually performed using numbing local anesthetic eye drop medications. Patients are wake or mildly sedated, and no airway tube is used.
COLONOSCOPY OR STOMACH ENDOSCOPY: These procedures are performed under intravenous sedation and almost never require an airway tube.
HAND OR FOOT SURGERIES: The anesthesiologist will choose the simplest anesthetic that suffices. Sometimes the choice is local anesthesia, with or without intravenous sedation. Sometimes the choice will be a regional nerve block to numb the extremity, with or without intravenous sedation. Many times the choice will be a general anesthetic, often with an airway tube. An LMA is used more frequently than an ETT.
CESAREAN SECTION: The preferred anesthetic is a spinal or epidural block which leaves the mother awake and alert to bond with her newborn immediately after childbirth. If the Cesarean section is an urgent emergency performed because of maternal bleeding or fetal distress, and there is inadequate time to insert a spinal or epidural local anesthetic into the mother’s lower back, a general anesthetic will be performed. An ETT is always used.
PEDIATRIC SURGERIES: Tonsillectomies are a common procedure and require a breathing tube as described above. Placement of pressure ventilation tubes into a child’s ears requires general anesthetic gases to be delivered via facemask only, and no airway tube is required. Almost all pediatric surgeries require general anesthesia. Infants, toddlers, and children need to be unconscious during surgery, for emotional reasons, because their parents are not present. The majority of pediatric general anesthetics require an airway tube.
CONCLUSIONS: The safe placement of airway tubes for multiple of types of surgeries, in patients varying from newborns to 100-year-olds, is one of the reasons physician anesthesiologists train for many years.
Prior to surgery, some patients are alarmed at the notion of such a breathing tube invading their body. They fear they’ll be awake during the placement of the breathing tube, or that they’ll choke on the breathing tube.
Be reassured that almost every breathing tube is placed after your unconsciousness is assured, and breathing tubes are removed prior to your return to consciousness. A sore throat afterward is common, but be reassured this is a minor complaint that will clear in a few days.
If you have any questions, be sure to discuss them with your own physician anesthesiologist when you meet him or her prior to your surgical procedure.
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