Anaesthesia - Death or Brain Damage

Authored by Dr Jennifer Hares, 03 May 2017

Patient is a certified member of
The Information Standard

Reviewed by:
Dr Hayley Willacy, 03 May 2017

The risk of dying in the operating theatre under anaesthetic is extremely small. For a healthy person having planned surgery, around 1 person may die for every 100,000 general anaesthetics given.

Brain damage as a result of having an anaesthetic is so rare that the risk has not been put into numbers.

When faced with the prospect of having an anaesthetic, it is perfectly normal to have fears or worries.

The most important thing to point out, however, is that the chance of dying or developing brain damage whilst having an anaesthetic is incredibly small.

When looking at risk it is important to remember that everything we do in life contains an element of risk. Some things that we do will be more risky than others.

Using sport as an example, we're all aware that the risk of getting hurt whilst playing rugby is far greater than the risk of getting hurt whilst playing snooker. Whilst there are other considerations in decisions around which sport to play, we make judgments based upon risk as part of our daily lives.

Also the level of risk for the same activity can be different in different circumstances. Take, for example, drinking a cup of tea. There is a risk that the tea will be too hot and you might scald your mouth. Before you drink the tea, you instinctively do things to reduce this risk - for example, leaving it to cool down. When you do drink your tea, even though you have left it for a while, there remains a small risk that it will still be too hot. Consider now if a young child were to drink a cup of tea. They may not be as aware of the risk of scalding and therefore they may not leave the tea to cool down. Their risk of drinking hot tea and scalding their mouth would be much higher than with an adult.

Your anaesthetist will weigh up your risks and discuss these with you.

Read more about the risks involved in having an anaesthetic.

As we have already said, an anaesthetic itself is very rarely the cause of death. However, when this does happen it's usually because of one of the following reasons:

  • An allergic reaction to the medications that are given during an anaesthetic.
  • Difficulties putting in the breathing tube.
  • Reduced blood supply to major organs.

Read more about why death may happen during an anaesthetic.

It is normal to feel drowsy, be slightly confused or have a headache after having a general anaesthetic. Sometimes these feelings can carry on for a few days or weeks after the operation but this does not mean that your brain has been damaged.

Brain damage as a result of having an anaesthetic is so rare that the risk has not been put into numbers.

Learn more about the risk of brain damage.

All anaesthetists have had extensive training and are expert in giving an anaesthetic and looking after you during the operation. Your anaesthetist will either be a doctor who's specialised in anaesthesia, or another type of health professional supervised by a senior anaesthetic doctor. Your anaesthetist will see you before your operation and ask about:

  • Your general health.
  • Any medicines that you take.
  • Any allergies you may have.
  • Other things about yourself.

They will explain about the operation you are due to have. They will use all the information you have discussed to give you the type of anaesthetic that is best and safest for you.

Discover more about preventing death or brain damage during an anaesthetic.

Further reading and references

  • Dr S White; Risks associated with your anaesthetic - Section 15: Death or brain damage Royal College of Anaesthetists, 2017

Tomorrow I have a day operation which generally takes about an hour. However what I'm most worried about is the general anaesthetic. What is it like? Is it possible to dream during one? Can you hear?...

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