The People's Perspective on Medicine

Did Anesthesia Scramble His Brain?

Surgery requiring anesthesia sometimes results in post-operative cognitive decline affecting attention and memory for days, weeks or months.

Q. What can you tell me about the after-effects of surgical anesthesia?

I am a healthy 72-year-old man, still very active. Five days ago I had TURP prostate surgery.

Now I’m plodding through a two-week recovery period of inactivity at home. I had planned to use the time to complete a writing project, read some books and sort through family photos. But I can’t concentrate. My attention span is zero.

Instead, I sit in a chair and stare into space. I worry that the surgery has made matters worse instead of better and that I’ll never get my life back. I feel disconnected from the people around me. To top it off, I have insomnia. Once I do get to sleep, I have the sort of frustrating dreams that accompany a fever.

I’ve never suffered from depression; my wife blames my problems on the residual effects of anesthesia.

A. Your wife might be right. Although your problem, “post-operative cognitive decline,” may affect up to 50 percent of older patients, doctors haven’t been able to tell whether the anesthesia, the surgery or some other factor is responsible (British Journal of Anaesthesia, online Sept. 8, 2014).

The recovery time is quite variable, but most people who experience this problem seem to be doing better after three months (Indian Journal of Anaesthesia, May-Jun, 2014). We hope that within a few months you will be back to your old self.

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    About the Author
    Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies. .
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    I’d agree that aneasetheics are best minimised; there is way too much use of it for minor

    I’ve had a colonoscopy and had to virtually beg my surgeon to not use drugs (it takes them a few minutes more as they need to do it more carefully). Result was that (even with a popyp removed) it was an absolutely perfect recovery.

    I’ve had an RF haemeroid operation with Propoful (I refused versed as I mentioned I was alergic to it..they take you seriously when there is a potential medical negligence claim in the offering) and was out for 20 minutes, and have felt intermittently foggy for almost a week since.

    All For an operation that is so minor (barring poet op pain) that it’s regularly done under just a local!!

    Appreciate aenaesthrtic for the major ops of course – but aenesthrtic for standard dental work, colonoscopy (that most people, especially men due to their short r Colon structure) have as a minor 15-20 Min procedure..!?

    No thanks for me..!!

    My mother who has suffered several severe strokes, has had 2 heart attacks and subsequent pacemaker/defibulator, and has diabetes just underwent emergency gallbladder surgery in mid-march and has declined to the point now she is completely incoherent, can’t get out of bed, can’t feed herself and doesn’t want to eat at all. I think the cause is the hospital kept her sedated under anesthesia for 2 1/2 days because of her agitation when they would try to remove sedation. She is now under hospice care because of the severe delcine in her condition.

    At 35, I broke my arm in a car accident and had to undergo surgery. Afterwards, my short-term memory was clearly affected and finally after about 3 weeks of cognitive difficulties, I called my surgeon’s office, desperate to see if my memory problems could be in any way related to my surgery. The nurse immediately said that it was from the anesthesia and that it would diminish in several months. It did.
    After a colonoscopy years later I experienced the same diminished cognitive state post-procedure. It was significant enough that when I had to have a hysterectomy at 55, I asked my OBGyn if I could have an epidural instead of going under. She recommended against that. Finally, I asked an anesthetist who recommended I request propofol only–no versed. Apparently versed is a drug that keeps one from having any memories of the procedure (should one become conscious at any time during the procedure). This worked beautifully for me and I had no cognitive complications post-op. Was it the versed causing my memory problems? I don’t know. I do know that I won’t ever willingly allow it to be used again. I’m curious to hear whether others have had similar experiences with versed.

    Well, after anesthesia I noticed lots of memory loss and chest pain for a few days. Depending on the anesthesia they used in your surgery, I experienced similar side effects.

    After reading those posts, I for sure won’t be having any surgery on my knee which is painful at times. I remember years ago, when I was still young, being told the very same thing by an older relative. He told me that every time one has a GA at whatever age, it somehow affects one’s brain; might not always show but apparently it does.
    So I would say if it’s not vital, don’t do it. Thanks to The people’s Pharmacy and to you all Good people for sharing your experiences. I never tire of reading it.

    I share the continuing anxiety of others, re anesthesia after age 73, otherwise very healthy, was hospitalized for intestinal infection, unknown cause….and ‘needed’ to have a colonoscopy while in the hospital,requiring anesthesia, (the Michael Jackson combo)..I personally feel I never ‘snapped back’ to my original self since then….I felt diminished and still feel so…I was terrified of the anesthetics, that may have something to do with it….of course the ‘pain meds’ given to me also had horrendous side effects,following this procedure..they mixed pain med with anesthetic and I was in outer space…

    I noticed a drop/decline after c-section surgery. Initially I thought it was because of being a new mom (age 38) , but even a marital therapist I had been seeing noticed the cognitive decline. I can’t tell if anesthesia has anything to do with it. However, I recommend a book about the little known world of anesthesia: Dr. Barry L. Friedberg “Getting Over Going Under: 5 Things You Must Know Before Anesthesia.” I think it’s the ONLY BOOK out on the market for consumers about anesthesia written for the ordinary person. You would think doctors would be able to pass at least a pamphlet of knowledge about going under during surgery…

    Thank you all for the information.

    At the risk of scaring everyone, I had surgery more than 15 years ago and was never the same. This could be caused by a variety of things. I had my thyroid removed and the replacement therapy is notorious for people not feeling well on.

    Also, I briefly read that children who have surgery are more likely to develop learning problems (sorry I do not have the citation).

    I’m certain we all want to live in a world with anesthesia, but I believe the medical community understates its risks.

    Good luck to you all.

    Nancy, have been on synthroid or levothyroxin all this time? I lost my thyroid 12 years ago and last year, at the urging of a friend tried naturethroid, a bio identical replacement. Can’t say I feel great, but my friend noticed a definite difference. If you go to stop the thyroid madness website, you will find a world of information on other thyroid medications and the tests you need.

    Has anyone tried taking activated charcoal after surgery with anesthesia?
    It is excellent for clearing chemicals out of the blood. Of course, for that reason, you should not take it the same time as taking supplements. You should not take it at all if you take any pharmaceutical drugs that are supposed to be in your blood all the time.
    If I ever have surgery again, or a CAT scan with contrasting dye, I will definitely be taking activated charcoal for at least a few days afterwards. I even take it if I’ve been around a lot of chemical fumes.

    I too have suffered from GA after an operation to remove a cancerous kidney when I was 7l. The surgery took longer than expected and after I was given dilaudid. The pain was unbelievable and some know it all doctor wanted me to go home at midnight, when I did not come out of recovery until 10pm. It was a slow recovery, made slower by no desire to get out of bed. I did not experience this with any other surgery and decided it was the mix of anesthetic agents that they used. My surgery was done at UCSF and I had a team of five anesthesiologist! Who all told me I was going to be very difficult to put out because of my various medical conditions.

    I had knee replacement surgery last year locally, and I was careful to ask for as little of the forget this ever happened drug as possible. I monitored myself carefully afterwards and seemed to be the same. However, the memory loss I had 5 years ago has never resolved.

    A friend with dementia issues fell and broke his femur. They had to give him morphine for the pain & who knows what anesthetic for surgery and he lost an incredible amount of capacity and requires round the clock supervision. He was just getting more of his memory back and more in tune with the world, when he fell again and broke the other leg. More anesthesia and more dementia. His poor wife is almost ready to collapse. It seems the anesthetic and painkillers both have an effect on older brains.

    I wonder if most folks having these problems have been given the same anesthetic product. I’ve had several elective procedures with profolol and no resulting problems. I’m a 75 yr old male.

    Recently under GA for major surgery and noticed that my brain was “fuzzy” and I was extremely tired for about 10 days after. I have since regained my clear thinking ability, but also blamed it on the GA because I happen to be very sensitive to medications.

    Although anesthesia does do a job on you, I would look to see if you had any of the listed antibiotics during your surgery (prophylactic use) and after as drs love this group of drugs. They are called Fluoroquinolines and Cipro, Levaquin, Avelox and Floxin are a few of the more better known names. These drugs stay in your body for a very long time and have delayed symptoms as well such as tendon, muscle, stomach, eye, mental, anxiety, insomnia, nightmares etc. You must ask the hospital for the “surgery room” report to see if they used them and the hospital report too.

    Be aware of your body and strange symptoms. Your doctors will not agree if you ask him, but believe me, there are way too many of us who have connected the dots to our health issues and more that haven’t. The fact that you are older, the drs will use your age as an excuse if your knees or tendons start to bother you.

    Feel better. If you need any more information you can reply to me.

    I just wanted to share my thoughts on this. I had brain surgery 3 years ago, I had a rather large tumor removed from my frontal lobe. It took me about 18 months to really get my cognitive abilities back. My mind just rambled for awhile. Major memory loss, spells of just emoting rather explosively, and inability to make decisions. The good news is, I feel 100% back to normal. I’m 76 years old. Keep your chin up, things improve. I think Joe’s opinion was pretty much on the mark.

    I am 71 and had a similar experience after surgery earlier this year. It has been 9 months, and I still don’t feel quite normal. Years ago, my mother began a heartbreaking decline into dementia after a shoulder replacement.

    After open heart surgery to repair a mitral valve a few years back, I was quite fuzzy brained and couldn’t remember the beginning of a paragraph by the time I reached the end of it (and have always been an avid and fast reader). My cardiologist told me that it can take 6-12 months for all of the anesthesia to work its way out of the body! Lots of water and exercise/movement will help process it out, and eating very healthy, clean (organic) food, especially veggies.

    In my case, after 18 months, she sent me to a neurologist and found that part of my brain had been killed during the surgery. It was a shock, but good to know what happened as I started various brain exercises as a result of this information. Not to scare you – my case of brain injury is likely because of the nature of my surgery (on a heart and lung machine during surgery) and how low they had to have my BP very low for an extended time. Still, it’s good to know what really occurred.

    Terry, I feel for you. I can’t imagine how frustrated you must feel. I stumbled upon your post because I have watched my older relatives (I’m 49) decline cognitively after multiple late in life procedures and surgeries. I think the medical community isn’t looking holistically at the surgeries that might fix one thing and create another. I agree with the comments of Mary from VA. Movement may help you move thru the fog.

    I am a yoga therapist also trained in reiki, brain gym, and rhythmic movement. I worked with a woman who had a severe traumatic brain injury a few years ago. She had tremendous results in a relatively short period of time. As a result I’m convinced of the body’s ability to support healing the brain.

    So I’m writing because I’m curious if you might have similar results… even tho’ your situation is completely different. I don’t know you at all, but my heart went out to you. Google brain gym movements… especially cross lateral, which can be done even as you’re recovering from surgery. Google rhythmic movements or find a provider in your area. Find a Reiki practitioner and a gentle yoga class. Try different classes until you find one that feels just right for you. If nothing else, walk, dance, move however you feel like moving as you heal physically.
    Blessings! May you return to your whole and vibrant ‘young’ self in no time.
    And please, if you do try these techniques, let me know how it impacts you.

    If it was me, I would make sure I have enough Vitamin D and take C up to bowel tolerance (diarrhea).

    I would also avoid breads, spicy foods, nightshades, and any other food that might be problematic for me.

    And the suggestion of some exercise sounds good as well. Just be careful of balance that may be off.

    I developed a close relationship with a 65 y/o woman with Alzheimer’s Disease. Over 5 years I was familiar with the gradual rate of her decline through a variety of indications. She fell and broke a femur below the hip joint and had to have a surgical repair. She was medicated for pain related to the repair as well as for a bed sore she developed. Post operatively, she was unable to sit up in bed, sit in a chair, or walk, and has experienced seizures. Her communication skills and the ability to recognize visitors are practically gone. It is clear to me that the anesthesia precipitated a significant acceleration in the onset of her Alzheimer’s symptoms. I wonder whether some anesthetics are worse in this regard than others. Had I known what I know now, I would have at least looked to see whether she might have benefitted from the use of acupuncture as an anesthetic alternative.

    “seem to be doing better after three months” seems to be a poor answer to give to a previously active seventy-something. I am wondering what exercise can do to help people recover from the anesthesia after surgery. We have discovered that young children have to be active or their brains do not work well. We have discovered that exercise helps us later in life as well. Sitting does NOT seem to help. Exercising both the body and the brain would seem to be a better answer. Walk, lift weights, and keep trying to read and write and think.

    I had a similar response following hip replacement. Don’t know if it was the Narco or the anesthesia that caused it, possibly a combination. I’m a writer and I couldn’t write or read anything much for a couple of months. I was very depressed coming off the Narco, and weaned myself quickly (with no guidance from anyone). I’m back to myself after six months, but I would suggest talking to your internist or to a psychiatrist to allay your fears. Surgeons are useless in this arena, especially orthopods.

    I am 58 and had sinus surgery 9 days ago. I am still fuzzy headed, brain foggy, and feeling doped, although I am not on any meds. I have little concentration or patience. I also feel mad for no reason. People have told me, anaesthesia is harder on you as you age and it takes much longer for your brain to return to normal. They were right.

    I believe this will be my last elective surgery. I am thinking of finding out what kind it was, and asking to not have that again.

    Hi, Janie,

    I would like to suggest you find out what medications were given to you pre / during / post surgery for future reference. I’ve had sinus’ surgeries. I recall one surgery that cortisone medication was given through the IV during the procedure. I believe it was given to lower swelling and issues related to allergies. I had also had a Prednisone pill regimen prior to surgery. Cortisone is well documented for resulting in little patience and concentration and for getting angry easily.

    Terry, I understand that you’re concerned, however, it’ll get better in a lot of areas (but still have limitations in others). I was given GA (general anesthesia) when I was 8 (appendix ruptured) and I was in a “fog” for a long time. My parents swore that it’s the GA that gave me math and memory problems. I’m 42 now and my memory couldn’t be better. I began taking fish oils and other supplements and everything went back to “normal” progressively. (Please check with your doc before taking anything, especially fish oil that thins the blood).
    Hang in there and keep exercising that brain of yours, and be patient. It’ll soon be all right.

    I have found this the case after each surgery I’ve had over the years (8 now). I’m only 60+ now just had another one same thing has happened. Seems to me the same thing happens to a few people I know too. I don’t find the brain comes back to the way it was. Seems like each time you lose a little more remembering power. Sorry just others I know and my experience.

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