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Obstruction to airflow in the lungs can be due to
- fixed or irreversible lung disease (COPD)
- reversible (responsive to medications) obstruction due to heart failure
- reversible (responsive to medications) obstruction due to asthma
In asthma the walls of the breathing tubes into the lungs swell (become inflamed), muscles surrounding the tubes contract squeezing the tubes and then increased mucus secretions inside those tubes plugs them. This results in obstruction to airflow with audible wheezing and a tight feeling in the chest as the individual tries to get the air through narrowed plugged tubes. Attacks can be mild resolving quickly with medication or severe and life threatening.
Attacks of asthma can be stimulated or triggered by environmental factors like pollen, cigarette smoke, dust mites, pet hair, insect excretions, air pollution, stress, exercise, infections etc. The trigger can be something you are allergic to. The primary medications used to treat asthma are bronchodilators which counteract the muscle spasm and steroids which treat the inflammation.
For the asthmatic undergoing cosmetic surgery an attack can be triggered by irritation from the breathing tube in general anesthesia, dehydration associated with any surgery, inability to clear secretions while lying down under the influence of anesthesia or even pain medications used during surgery. The anesthesia staff needs to adjust the medications given in such situations and the patient needs to bring their inhaler with them to surgery, if they have one. If they patient smokes it is imperative that they not do so for at least one week prior to surgery. Cosmetic surgery in an asthmatic who was smoking within days of surgery is a dangerous combination as they are very sensitive to asthmatic triggers.
Abdominoplasty and belt lipectomy patients who are asthmatics are at higher risk of attacks because the immobility after surgery combined with greater pain medication needs.
The steroids used to treat inflammation in asthmatics also prolong the healing process so sutures may have to stay in longer than they otherwise would. The adverse affect on healing can be reversed by taking Vitamin A before and after surgery. The vitamin does not affect the anti-inflammatory effect so it will not exacerbate the asthma.
This is a tricky situation because even if normal lung function tests and a normal physical examination an asthmatic attack can occur due to any of the factors mentioned above. Furthermore, significant impairment of lung function can occur in asthmatics without symptoms. The history and general physical examination may not accurately indicate the severity of the asthma. The answer is not to just do the surgery under local because you think it would be safer. If you have an asthmatic attack induced by a cosmetic procedure and cannot have a breathing tube placed because of the spasm you will not survive. The answer is to do the surgery in an environment where should any of these problems arise the right personnel and equipment are present to handle the situation. Certified operating rooms will have the necessary oxygen, IV fluids, inhaled and injectable bronchodilators, oral and intravenous anti-inflammatory agents to treat an attack. It is highly unlikely that a non-certified operating room will have those medications.
Only asthmatics with stage I disease and an forced expiratory volume greater than 75% of predicted values can undergo surgery without a higher than normal risk of airway complications. Any asthmatic who has taken steroids, whether orally as a pill or as an inhaled medication, within 6 months of surgery needs perioperative steroids to cover for diminished adrenal function. Inhaled steroid medications may have to be temporarily replaced by oral prednisone until the patient has recovered from surgery. Any asthmatic with audible wheezing should not be having elective non-emergent surgery.
I am personally aware of a fit individual in his 30s who went to a martial arts practice session without his inhaler. He suddenly developed an exercise induced asthmatic attack. By the time the ambulance and paramedics had arrived he could not be revived and passed away. Prompt use of an inhaler would most likely have circumvented this. A similar situation could just have easily occurred with cosmetic surgery.
I was performing non-cosmetic reconstructive surgery on a healthy 20 year old patient in the hospital. He was asleep on the table and just as I was about to make the first cut the monitors showed the oxygen in his blood suddenly dropped to dangerously low levels. Anesthesia went into action and gave him a bronchodilator using an inhaler via the breathing tube. He rapidly responded and the oxygen came back to normal levels and was maintained there using intravenous medications. In a non-accredited operating room lacking all of the necessary equipment and medications that patient would have been in real deadly trouble. There is a good chance he would not have survived a liposuction procedure under local anesthesia in a non-certified operating room. Furthermore, that patient was previously thought to be healthy and had no previous history of asthma.
Aaron Stone MD - Plastic Surgeon Los Angeles
Aaron Stone MD - twitter