Anesthetics & The Mysteries of Pain Management

Anesthetics & The Mysteries of Pain Management

Dentistry and just about all medical procedures were horribly painful experiences prior to the discovery of anesthetics. You could try and numb yourself with alcohol, possibly opium or a traditional knock-out blow to the head. But even these extreme measures did not reliably block out pain and often added to it.


Thanks to the advancement of medical science and burgeoning attention to research during the 19th century, anaesthetics were invented. These wondrous concoctions were able to ease pain, relax muscles and create a type of hypnosis resulting in temporary amnesia to help minimize the traumatic memory of pain.

History of Anesthetics

1846 Ether

  • This year marked the discovery of ether for use as a general anasthetic
  • The first public demonstration occurred at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston
  • A local dentist, Dr William Morton used inhaled ether to anesthetize a patient before removing a neck tumour painlessly

1885 ~ Injectable Cocaine & Local Anesthesia

  • The first local anesthetic was cocaine
  • In Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Dr William Halsted injected 4% cocaine into the forearm of a patient
  • The arm was numb below the injection site but not above
  • Local anesthetic allowed doctors to block pain in specific locations

1896 ~ Hypodermic Needle, Syringe & Morphine

  • Scot, Alexander Wood, invented a hollow needle which fit on the end of a piston-style syringe
  • This combination allowed pain to be treated by morphine injections
  • Intravenous (infusion of liquid substances directly into a vein) injections would not be possible without the invention of the syringe

1905 ~ Blood Pressure Measurement

  • Dr Nikolai Korotkov of Russia used a stethoscope to monitor the sounds of an artery as a blood pressure cuff was deflated
  • The analysis of these sounds resulted in accurate deduction of systolic and diastolic blood pressure.
  • This enabled anesthesia to be administered safely as it could then be adjusted based on blood pressure measurements which need to be kept stable

1913 ~ Cuffed Endrotracheal Breathing Tube

  • A technique was developed by Sir Ivan Magill of England whereby a breathing tube was inserted into the windpipe
  • This allowed surgery to be carried out within the abdomen and chest by ensuring ventilation of the lungs

1934 ~ Thiopental & Injectible Barbiturates

  • The use of intravenously administered sodium thiopental (aka truth serum!) was introduced by Dr John Lundy of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester
  • It was a much more pleasant way to go to sleep than inhaling ether
  • Note: Propofol has now replaced Pentothal so less change of divulging your deepest secrets while under

1940 ~ Curare & Injectable Muscle Relaxants

  • A Canadian from Montreal, Dr. Harold Griffith, injected curate, a paralyzing drug on top of general anasthesia in order to relax the muscles
  • This would allow easier insertion of endotracheal tubes and is essential for many chest and abdominal surgeries

1950s ~ Post-Anesthesia Care Unit (PACU) & The Intensive Care Unit (ICU)

  • These type of units originated in WW2 and the Korean War where they were developed to provide more efficient care for the sick and wounded
  • They allow close monitoring of vital signs to reduce complications and stabilize patients

1956 ~ Halothane

  • This was the first modern inhaled anasthetic discovered
    It was synthesized by British chemist, Charles Suckling
  • Advantages were its more pleasant odour than ether, higher potency, faster onset, non-flammability (ether is explosive!) and low toxicity
  • Isoflurane, desflurane, and sevoflurane were later developments

1983 ~ Pulse Oximetry Monitoring

  • This amazing device is able to measure the oxygen saturation in a patient's bloodstream and was co-developed byte Dr William New, a Stanford anesthesiologist
  • It uses the pitch of the pulse tone to alert of any drop in oxygen saturation, which is very dangerous. Thus allowing levels to be increased quickly before any serious complication arises

Despite anesthetics being an essential part of modern medicine, we still are not sure exactly how they work. One theory is that they dissolve some brain cell fat and change the activity of the cells.

Eventually, research will discover the precise mechanism. In the meantime it's hard to imagine dentistry and other medical procedures and operations without them.

Book a Consultation

Let’s brighten your smile!