Excess Oxygen During Surgery may Lead to Organ Damage

Although the absolute risk remains low, this study suggests it is time to reconsider the liberal use of oxygen during general anesthesia, say experts in a linked editorial.

Oxygen is routinely given to almost all patients undergoing surgery with general anesthesia to help prevent hypoxia (dangerously low oxygen levels), and the World Health Organization recommends liberal use of oxygen to reduce the risk of infection.

During surgery, arterial blood hemoglobin oxygen saturation (SpO2) is continuously measured, enabling doctors to adjust the dose of oxygen to a target level. A normal SpO2 is 94-95%. Giving oxygen in excess of that required to saturate hemoglobin (known as supraphysiological oxygen) is common.


Supraphysiological oxygen can harm the body’s cells and tissues, but the clinical relevance of these effects during surgery remains uncertain, and previous trials have not been able to detect any meaningful effects on organs.

Effect of Excess Oxygen Administration during Surgery

To address this knowledge gap, a team of US researchers examined whether supraphysiological oxygen administration during surgery is associated with lower or higher postoperative kidney, heart, and lung injuries.

Their findings are based on data for over 350,000 patients (average age 59; 52% women; 70% white) undergoing surgery with general anesthesia and endotracheal intubation (a breathing tube placed into the windpipe) at 42 medical centers across the United States between January 2016 and November 2018.

Background information on factors such as age, gender, race, weight (BMI), and medical history was collected, and patients were screened for kidney, heart, and lung injuries before and after their surgery.

The researchers then used an algorithm to calculate the amount of oxygen given above air level (21%) against the time spent with oxygen saturation at or above 92% throughout surgery.

Medical records were used to track cases of acute kidney, myocardial, and lung injury as well as 30 day mortality, length of hospital stay, and stroke.

The average duration of surgery was 205 minutes. Acute kidney injury was diagnosed in 6.5% of patients, myocardial injury in 2.8%, and lung injury in 4.4%.

After accounting for baseline factors and other potentially influential variables, increased oxygen exposure during surgery was associated with a higher risk of organ injury.

For example, patients at the upper end (75th centile) of oxygen levels had 26% greater odds of acute kidney injury, 12% greater odds of myocardial injury, and 14% greater odds of lung injury compared with patients at the lower end (25th centile).

Patients at the 75th centile of oxygen levels also had 9% greater odds of stroke and 6% greater odds of 30 day mortality than patients at the 25th centile.

However, patients at the 75th centile had a slightly shorter length of stay compared with patients at the 25th centile, an effect unchanged after excluding patients who died before discharge.

These are observational findings, so they can’t establish cause, and the researchers acknowledge that not all patients were screened for kidney and heart injury after their surgery, nor were they able to consider factors such as diet, lifestyle, and medication use, which can influence susceptibility to organ injury.

Nevertheless, this was a large study, drawn from geographically diverse populations, ensuring precision and generalizability of the results. And findings were similar after additional analyses, providing greater confidence in their conclusions.

Based on their findings, the researchers say: “A large clinical trial to detect small but clinically significant effects on organ injury and patient centered outcomes is needed to guide oxygen administration during surgery.”

This and previous research shows that oxygen can be a double-edged sword, as experts point out in a linked editorial.

They suggest that any future research on this topic could deal with some of the study’s acknowledged limitations and could also measure the cognitive impairment because experimental evidence suggests that the brain tissue is particularly vulnerable to redox imbalance.

Research collaborations between biochemists and anesthesiologists should be encouraged, they add, “especially to identify cause-effect relationships between supraphysiological oxygen administration and organ injury.”

Source: Eurekalert

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