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The anesthetic propofol: uses and dangers

Updated on November 15, 2011
The only place for propofol is the OR
The only place for propofol is the OR | Source


Before the death of Michael Jackson, most non-medical people had never heard of propofol, the generic name for the prescription anesthetic Diprivan. Now, however, it seems prudent to understand these types of drugs better, as protection for ourselves and our loved ones in the future. Generally, propofol is a type of drug called a general anesthetic. Here's why it can be very beneficial but also very dangerous.

How anesthetics work

In spite of the fact that anesthetics have been in use for many years, our understanding of how they work is incomplete. They generally affect the central nervous system, which includes the brain and spinal cord. Although different drugs act differently, overall they slow or stop transmission of nerve impulses, leading to loss of pain sensation and unconsciousness. The drugs are removed from the body by the liver and kidneys, as far as we know, although other unidentified mechanisms may also exist.


Propofol is an anesthetic that is always administered directly into the circulation through an intravenous catheter. Although its exact effects are not all known, scientists believe it binds to receptors for a neurotransmitter called GABA, or gamma aminobutyric acid, causing a lessening of anxiety and a deep sleep. Given in sufficient quantity, propofol can induce a dreamless sleep that resembles a coma. If you are anesthetized with propofol, you will have no memory of anything that took place while you were asleep. Because patients generally waken within minutes of stopping an infusion of propofol, the drug is a very popular anesthetic that is used in hospitals worldwide.

Side effects and dangers

Propofol can depress both respiration and cardiac function and is used with great care in patients with heart conditions or who are on other medications that may also affect these systems. In addition, propofol causes a burning sensation during administration. For this reason, another drug such as Lidocaine that deadens sensation is often added to the infusion. Popofol also tends to lessen mental alertness for some time after is has been administered, so patients are warned not to drive or operate machinery for a while after receiving propofol.

The bottom line

Propofol is a useful and popular anesthetic drug. However, because it causes total unconsciousness and has potentially powerful side effects that can stop your breathing or heartbeat, in good practice it is never used outside of a hospital where the patient's vital signs can be carefully monitored.


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    • profile image

      Danni 4 years ago

      I had this drug for a colonoscopy. Yes i can see how it could be addictive cause its the best sleep ever!

    • orthjo profile image

      orthjo 5 years ago from Philadelphia, PA

      Thanks Jamie. Yes, it's a good drug but has major risks. Such a shame.

    • Jamie Brock profile image

      Jamie Brock 5 years ago from Texas

      This stuff sounds very potent! It is sad that Michael Jackson died from an overdose of this...but I'm still trying to wrap my head around the fact that he was able to become addicted to it and had to have it (supposedly) to get any sleep. That is one of the downsides of fame and fortune I guess. This was a very informative hub. Thanks for sharing!