Nitrous Oxide Anesthesia May Increase Heart Attack Risk

Article ID: 572907

Released: 28-Jan-2011 4:05 PM EST

Source Newsroom: International Anesthesia Research Society (IARS)

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Many Questions Remain About Safety of Widely Used Anesthetic Gas

Newswise — Patients receiving nitrous oxide as part of general anesthesia for surgery may be at increased long-term risk of myocardial infarction (heart attack), reports a study in the February issue of Anesthesia & Analgesia, official journal of the International Anesthesia Research Society (IARS).

Based on follow-up from a previous randomized trial, the study finds no increased risk of death among patients receiving nitrous oxide, according to Dr. Kate Leslie of Royal Melbourne Hospital and colleagues. Experts emphasize the need for more research to clarify the true cardiovascular risks, if any, of using nitrous oxide for anesthesia. ENIGMA Results Suggest Long-Term Increase in Myocardial Infarction Risk

In the ENIGMA trial, 2,050 patients undergoing noncardiac surgery were randomly assigned to receive anesthesia with or without nitrous oxide. In that study, an unexpectedly high number of myocardial infarctions occurred among patients receiving nitrous oxide—30 patients, compared to ten patients not receiving nitrous oxide. There were also more deaths in the nitrous oxide group: nine versus three patients.

To see if there were any lasting harmful effects of nitrous oxide, Dr. Leslie and colleagues analyzed long-term outcome data on the ENIGMA patients. At a median follow-up of 3½ years, 19 percent of patients had died and 4.5 percent had a myocardial infarction.

The results showed a persistently higher rate of myocardial infarctions among patients who received nitrous oxide. The odds of myocardial infarction were nearly 60 percent higher than in patients not receiving nitrous oxide, after adjustment for other risk factors such as age, history of heart disease, and length of surgery.

Despite the increased myocardial infarction rate, patients receiving nitrous oxide had no significant increase in the risk of death. There was no significant difference in stroke: about two percent in both groups.

Could Homocysteine Levels Play a Role?

Among the many unanswered questions is how nitrous oxide anesthesia would lead to an increased myocardial infarction risk. One possibility is increased levels of the amino acid homocysteine, which have been linked to an increased risk of heart attack. In the ENIGMA study, 46 percent of patients with myocardial infarction had elevated homocysteine levels, compared to 11 percent of those without myocardial infarction.

However, no previous study has shown a link between nitrous oxide administration and long-term cardiovascular risk. Other mechanisms besides increased homocysteine levels are possible as well. As a group, the patients enrolled in the ENIGMA study had a low risk of myocardial infarction. Only 11 percent had a history of heart disease.

Although the new findings raise concerns, they are far from providing definitive evidence that nitrous oxide increases myocardial infarction risk. "The exact relationship between nitrous oxide administration and serious long-term adverse outcomes requires investigation in an appropriately designed large randomized controlled trial," Dr. Leslie and co-authors conclude.

Perhaps more familiar as a dental anesthetic, nitrous oxide is widely used in general anesthesia as well—it is commonly used to initiate anesthesia for surgery, before stronger anesthetics are given. Previous studies have linked nitrous oxide to an increased risk of infection and pneumonia, according to an accompanying editorial by Drs. W. Scott Beattie of University of Toronto and Neal H. Badner of University of Western Ontario.

"The article is undoubtedly intriguing," Drs. Beattie and Badner write. "However, it still does not answer several important safety aspects." They note that a new study, called ENIGMA-II, is now being performed to examine the effects of nitrous oxide anesthesia in patients at higher risk of cardiovascular disease.

Read the full study in Anesthesia & Analgesia

About the IARSThe International Anesthesia Research Society is a nonpolitical, not-for-profit medical society founded in 1922 to advance and support scientific research and education related to anesthesia, and to improve patient care through basic research. The IARS contributes nearly $1 million annually to fund anesthesia research; sponsors an annual forum for anesthesiology leaders to share information and ideas; maintains a worldwide membership of more 15,000 physicians, physician residents, and others with doctoral degrees, as well as health professionals in anesthesia-related practice; sponsors the SAFEKIDS initiative; and publishes the journal Anesthesia & Analgesia. Additional information about the society and the journal may be found at and

About Anesthesia & AnalgesiaAnesthesia & Analgesia was founded in 1922 and was issued bi-monthly until 1980, when it became a monthly publication. A&A is the leading journal for anesthesia clinicians and researchers and includes more than 500 articles annually in all areas related to anesthesia and analgesia, such as cardiovascular anesthesiology, patient safety, anesthetic pharmacology, and pain management. The journal is published on behalf of the IARS by Lippincott Williams & Wilkins (LWW), a division of Wolters Kluwer Health.

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