FDA Warns Pregnant Women Against Anesthesia Use

A recent FDA recommendation warns pregnant women of the dangers associated with anesthesia exposure during pregnancy—should you worry if you need to have surgery?

Anesthesia in Pregnancy
The FDA just released a warning directed at pregnant women and the parents of young children: According to the organization, anesthesia can harm developing brains—and pregnant women and children should consider avoiding it.

But there's a caveat: The FDA refers to "lengthy" general anesthesia use in its opinion, defined as three or more hours. The FDA will require anesthesia drugs to carry warning labels that reflect these dangers. 

So what happens when a pregnant woman requires surgery? Well, there's no clear-cut answer: The FDA's stance is that people need to know and understand the risks associated with anesthesia use and simply weigh the benefits against the risks. "We recognize that in many cases these exposures may be medically necessary and these new data regarding the potential harms must be carefully weighed against the risk of not performing a specific medical procedure," the FDA wrote in a release for this news. 

We enlisted OB/GYN Joie Russo, D.O., to help us better understand the implications of this news. “The studies conducted by the FDA reference use of general anesthetic and sedation drugs for more than three hours having serious impacts on pregnancies in the third trimester," Dr. Russo told Fit Pregnancy. "However, in practice procedures of this length rarely need to be considered. These three plus-hour procedures would likely be due to a life-threatening injury such as the result of major trauma or serious cardiovascular problems. In these cases, it would be critical to have the medical team evaluate the benefits and risks associated with use of the anesthesia, but these would be very serious medical issues and not elective procedures."

Dr. Russo pointed out that pregnant women probably don't want to undergo elective procedures—but that's a sentiment that existed long before this news ever broke. Dr. Russo also mentioned C-sections in particular, saying: "In the case of an emergency c-section under general anesthesia, the baby would only be under anesthesia for less than 5 minutes – many doctors can complete this in under a minute. Also in these cases, if possible anesthesiologists may use regional anesthesia, including an epidural which we know is safe for both mother and baby.”

But the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists issued a statement on this news as well...and the group is concerned with the FDA's warning. "ACOG has significant concerns regarding the FDA's warning that repeated or lengthy use of general anesthetic or sedation drugs during surgeries or procedures in pregnant women during their third trimester could result in negative developmental effects in children," the group wrote in an emailed statement. "ACOG believes the clinical significance of these findings are unknown and could inappropriately dissuade clinicians from providing women with necessary care during pregnancy."

So there you have it: While this news is important to know, we'd also urge you not to worry about it too much. If you do need to undergo a surgery at some point during pregnancy, it's just a matter of determining whether or not the benefits outweigh the dangers.