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General anaesthetics (or anesthetics, see spelling differences) are often defined as compounds that induce a reversible loss of consciousness in humans or loss of righting reflex in animals. Clinical definitions are also extended to include the lack of awareness to painful stimuli, sufficient to facilitate surgical applications in clinical and veterinary practice. General anaesthetics do not act as analgesics and should also not be confused with sedatives. General anaesthetics are a structurally diverse group of compounds whose mechanisms encompasses multiple biological targets involved in the control of neuronal pathways. The precise workings are the subject of some debate and ongoing research.
General anesthetics elicit a state of general anesthesia. It remains somewhat controversial regarding how this state should be defined. General anesthetics, however, typically elicit several key reversible effects: immobility, analgesia, amnesia, unconsciousness, and reduced autonomic responsiveness to noxious stimuli.
Drugs given to induce general anaesthesia can be either as gases or vapours (inhalational anaesthetics), or as injections (intravenous anaesthetics or even intramuscular). All of these agents share the property of being quite hydrophobic (i.e., as liquids, they are not freely miscible—or mixable—in water, and as gases they dissolve in oils better than in water). It is possible to deliver anaesthesia solely by inhalation or injection, but most commonly the two forms are combined, with an injection given to induce anaesthesia and a gas used to maintain it.
Inhalational anaesthetic substances are either volatile liquids or gases, and are usually delivered using an anaesthesia machine. An anaesthesia machine allows composing a mixture of oxygen, anaesthetics and ambient air, delivering it to the patient and monitoring patient and machine parameters. Liquid anaesthetics are vapourised in the machine.
Many compounds have been used for inhalation anaesthesia, but only a few are still in widespread use. Desflurane, isoflurane and sevoflurane are the most widely used volatile anaesthetics today. They are often combined with nitrous oxide. Older, less popular, volatile anaesthetics, include halothane, enflurane, and methoxyflurane. Researchers are also actively exploring the use of xenon as an anaesthetic.
Injectable anaesthetics are used for the induction and maintenance of a state of unconsciousness. Anaesthetists prefer to use intravenous injections, as they are faster, generally less painful and more reliable than intramuscular or subcutaneous injections. Among the most widely used drugs are:
Induction and maintenance of general anesthesia, and the control of the various physiological side effects is typically achieved through a combinatorial drug approach. Individual general anesthetics vary with respect to their specific physiological and cognitive effects. While general anesthesia induction may be facilitated by one general anesthetic, others may be used in parallel or subsequently to achieve and maintain the desired anesthetic state. The drug approach utilized is dependent upon the procedure and the needs of the healthcare providers.
It is postulated that general anaesthetics exert their action by the activation of inhibitory central nervous system (CNS) receptors, and the inactivation of CNS excitatory receptors. The relative roles of different receptors is still under debate, but evidence exists for particular targets being involved with certain anaesthetics and drug effects.
Below are several key targets of general anesthetics that likely mediate their effects:
Aside from the clinically advantageous effects of general anesthetics, there are a number of other physiological consequences mediated by this class of drug. Notably, a reduction in blood pressure can be facilitated by a variety of mechanisms, including reduced cardiac contractility and dilation of the vasculature. This drop in blood pressure may activate a reflexive increase in heartrate, due to a baroreceptor-mediated feedback mechanism. Some anesthetics, however, disrupt this reflex.
Patients under general anesthesia are at greater risk for developing hypothermia, as the aforementioned vasodilation increases the heat lost via peripheral blood flow. By and large, these drugs reduce the internal body temperature threshold at which autonomic thermoregulatory mechanisms are triggered in response to cold. (On the other hand, the threshold at which thermoregulatory mechanisms are triggered in response to heat is typically increased).
Anesthetics typically affect respiration. Inhalational anesthetics elicit bronchodilation, an increase in respiratory rate, and reduced tidal volume. The net effect is decreased respiration, which must be managed by healthcare providers, while the patient is under general anesthesia. The reflexes that function to alleviate airway obstructions are also dampened (e.g. gag and cough). Compounded with a reduction in lower esophageal sphincter tone, which increases the frequency of regurgitation, patients are especially prone to asphyxiation while under general anesthesia. Healthcare providers closely monitor individuals under general anesthesia and utilize a number of devices, such as an endotracheal tube, to ensure patient safety.
Intravenously-delivered general anesthetics are typically small and highly lipophilic molecules. These characteristics facilitate their rapid preferential distribution into the brain and spinal cord, which are both highly vascularized and lipophilic. It is here where the actions of these drugs lead to general anesthesia induction.
Following distribution into the central nervous system (CNS), the anesthetic drug then diffuses out of the CNS into the muscles and viscera, followed by adipose tissues. In patients given a single injection of drug, this redistribution results in termination of general anesthesia. Therefore, following administration of a single anesthetic bolus, duration of drug effect is dependent solely upon the redistribution kinetics.
The half-life of an anesthetic drug following a prolonged infusion, however, depends upon both drug redistribution kinetics, drug metabolism in the liver, and existing drug concentration in fat. When large quantities of an anesthetic drug have already been dissolved in the body's fat stores, this can slow its redistribution out of the brain and spinal cord, prolonging its CNS effects. For this reason, the half-lives of these infused drugs are said to be context-dependent. Generally, prolonged anesthetic drug infusions result in longer drug half-lives, slowed elimination from the brain and spinal cord, and delayed termination of general anesthesia.
Minimal alveolar concentration (MAC) is the concentration of an inhalational anesthetic in the lungs that prevents 50% of patients from responding to surgical incision. This value is used to compare the potencies of various inhalational general anesthetics and impacts the partial-pressure of the drug utilized by healthcare providers during general anesthesia induction and/or maintenance.
Induction of anesthesia is facilitated by diffusion of an inhaled anesthetic drug into the brain and spinal cord. Diffusion throughout the body proceeds until the drug's partial pressure within the various tissues is equivalent to the partial pressure of the drug within the lungs. Healthcare providers can control the rate of anesthesia induction and final tissue concentrations of the anesthetic by varying the partial pressure of the inspired anesthetic. A higher drug partial pressure in the lungs will drive diffusion more rapidly throughout the body and yield a higher maximum tissue concentration. Respiratory rate and inspiratory volume will also effect the promptness of anesthesia onset, as will the extent of pulmonary blood flow.
The partition coefficient of a gaseous drug is indicative of its relative solubility in various tissues. This metric is the relative drug concentration between two tissues, when their partial pressures are equal (gas:blood, fat:blood, etc.). Inhalational anesthetics vary widely with respect to their tissue solubilities and partition coefficients. Anesthetics that are highly soluble require many molecules of drug to raise the partial pressure within a given tissue, as opposed to minimally soluble anesthetics which require relatively few. Generally, inhalational anesthetics that are minimally soluble reach equilibrium more quickly. Inhalational anesthetics that have a high fat:blood partition coefficient, however, reach equilibrium more slowly, due to the minimal vascularization of fat tissue, which serves as a large, slowly-filling reservoir for the drug.
Inhaled anesthetics are eliminated via expiration, following diffusion into the lungs. This process is dependent largely upon the anesthetic blood:gas partition coefficient, tissue solubility, blood flow to the lungs, and patient respiratory rate and inspiratory volume. For gases that have minimal tissue solubility, termination of anesthesia generally occurs as rapidly as the onset of anesthesia. For gases that have high tissue solubility, however, termination of anesthesia is generally context-dependent. As with intravenous anesthetic infusions, prolonged delivery of highly soluble anesthetic gases generally results in longer drug half-lives, slowed elimination from the brain and spinal cord, and delayed termination of anesthesia.
Metabolism of inhaled anesthetics is generally not a major route of drug elimination.