Explaining Propofol to patients after Michael Jackson and Conrad Murray

A guest column by the American Society of Anesthesiologists, exclusive to KevinMD.com.

Since the passing of Michael Jackson and the recent trial of his physician, Dr. Conrad Murray, I have been frequently asked by patients whether they will receive the drug that killed the singer. As have many of my anesthesiologist colleagues, I have taken this opportunity to educate patients on what propofol is and how it should be safely administered.

I explain to my patients that propofol is a common and safe anesthetic drug used in procedures requiring sedation or general anesthesia. However, it is a powerful anesthetic, and patients can have extremely variable responses to the drug. For example, some patients requiring sedation may actually go under general anesthesia and become completely anesthetized, which includes losing the ability to breathe.

Since propofol has the potential to depress breathing, it is essential that a professional trained in the provision of general anesthesia always administers the anesthetic in a controlled and monitored medical setting. Typically, propofol is given in a surgical area or intensive care unit. As an anesthesiologist, I am an expert in this area.

During the trial, many patients questioned whether a patient who receives propofol should be left alone while anesthetized. As an anesthesiologist, my number one priority is to protect and regulate patients’ critical life functions like heart rate, blood pressure and breathing. In order to do so, my patients always have an anesthesia provider by their side.

With the end of the trial not far behind, I imagine the curiosity about propofol will continue in the months to come. Below please find some commonly asked questions about the drug.

What are the side effects of Propofol?

Propofol is a powerful anesthetic drug that depresses respiratory and cardiac function.

Does Propofol cause pain?

The drug can only be administered with an I.V. Propofol can burn a bit when being administered. Often the drug Lidocaine is used to reduce the pain associated with the Propofol injection.

Does Propofol help you sleep?

Propofol produces sedation and in higher doses it produces general anesthesia.  This is not a state of normal, restful sleep.

What does “milk of anesthesia” refer to?

Propofol resembles milk in color and in slang terms is sometimes called “milk of anesthesia.”

John E. Vazquez is a member of the American Society of Anesthesiologists. 

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