Anesthetic pharmacology is the study of drugs used in sedation and pain management to keep patients comfortable for medical procedures. Practitioners of anesthesiology need to understand the chemistry behind the medications they use, while pharmacists and technicians study anesthetic pharmacology to make sure they provide appropriate drugs to patients. This is also a subject of interest at drug companies, where researchers work on new medications as well as treatments to reverse the effects of anesthetics, address bad drug reactions, and test for allergies before patients receive drugs.
There are a number of pathways in the body an anesthetic drug may use to induce a state of sedation or unconsciousness. Researchers in this field study how anesthetic agents work and provide detailed information so medical providers can select the right medication for a given application and use it safely. Some have a very narrow therapeutic index, meaning that it is easy to give the patient too little or too much. Understanding anesthetic pharmacology allows a practitioner to choose the correct dosage for a patient, given the patient’s history and the procedure.
While patients are under anesthesia, careful control is required to maintain the desired level of sedation, muscle relaxation, and pain management. Emergence from anesthesia is also carefully managed, and pain immediately after the procedure is controlled. All of these applications require knowledge of anesthetic pharmacology to provide the best treatment to the patient, especially if something goes wrong. If a patient reacts badly to a medication, for instance, the doctor needs to know which drugs can be safely administered to reverse the anesthetic and stabilize the patient.
Local, regional, and general anesthetics are used routinely in medical practice for activities ranging from placing sutures to brain surgery. Some tasks require very careful anesthetic pharmacology management to protect the patient. In some types of brain surgery, for instance, patients need to be awake to respond to the doctor, but sedated to avoid discomfort and distress. An anesthesiology specialist works with the surgeon to determine which drugs to use and how to administer them so the surgery goes as smoothly as possible.
In pharmacology school, special training in anesthetic pharmacology is provided to students so they understand the medications used, their applications, potential interactions, and known side effects. Doctors who pursue a specialty in anesthesiology also receive advanced training in this subject because they need to know the medications they work with intimately, as do people like nurse anesthetists and anesthesia technicians. This training can include education in commonly confused agents, safety protocols, and other tips for reducing patient risks.