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Applications of Nitrous Oxide for Procedural Sedation in the Pediatric Population

Tobias, Joseph D. MD

doi: 10.1097/PEC.0b013e318280d824
Review Article

Objective: The objective of this review was to provide a general descriptive account of the physical properties, end-organ effects, therapeutic applications, and delivery techniques of nitrous oxide (N2O) as used in the arena of procedural sedation.

Data Source: A computerized bibliographic search regarding the applications of nitrous for provision of sedation and analgesia during procedures with an emphasis on the pediatric population was performed.

Results: The end-organ effects of N2O have been well described in the operating room setting. Aside from its effects on the central nervous system of sedation and analgesia, N2O may alter intracerebral dynamics and alter cerebral blood flow and intracranial pressure especially in patients with altered intracranial compliance. Effects on ventilation include a dose-related depression of ventilatory function and control of upper airway patency. These effects are generally limited in the absence of comorbid diseases and potentiated by other sedative and analgesic agents. The more clinically significant respiratory effect of N2O on ventilatory function is a dose-dependent depression of the ventilatory response to hypoxemia. Hemodynamic effects include a mild direct depressant effect on myocardial function, which in the absence of comorbid cardiac disease is generally compensated by stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system. Nitrous oxide may potentially aggravate pulmonary hypertension. Additional physiologic effects on neurologic and hematologic function may result in inactivation of the enzyme, methionine synthetase. Recent concern has also been raised regarding the potential effects of N2O on immune function and its relationship to perioperative surgical site infections. Given differences in the solubility, N2O will diffuse into and significantly expand gas-filled cavities. Chronic exposure of health care works to N2O is also a concern. Although there are limited data in the literature to clearly substantiate concerns regarding the reproductive toxicity of occupational exposure to N2O, appropriate scavenging and use of other techniques are mandatory. Nitrous oxide has been shown to be effective for a variety of minor surgical procedures such as venipuncture, intravenous cannula placement, lumbar puncture, bone marrow aspiration, laceration repair, dental care, and minor dermatologic procedures. It is generally as effective as midazolam, with several studies demonstrating it to be more effective. However, its utility is not as great in severely painful procedures such as fracture reduction. Demonstrated advantages to parenteral sedation include a more rapid onset and a shorter recovery time with the majority of patients preferring it to over other agents or agreeing to its use for subsequent procedures. The literature also suggests increased success rates with simple procedures such as intravenous cannula placement when compared with placebo. In general, life-threatening adverse events have not been reported. Most common adverse effects include dysphoria and vomiting. For more painful procedures, combination with another agent may be used, and in all cases, topical or infiltrative local anesthesia is recommended.

Conclusions: In general, N2O is a useful adjunct for procedural sedation. Given the variety of procedures performed in the pediatric patient, ongoing research is required to identify the most appropriate and effective use of this agent. This may be particularly relevant when evaluating its use for procedures associated with significant pain. In these scenarios, the combination of N2O with other agents needs to be evaluated. Given the potential for adverse effects, strict adherence to published guidelines regarding procedural sedation and monitoring is suggested.

From the Department of Anesthesiology & Pain Medicine, Nationwide Children’s Hospital, Columbus, OH.

Disclosure: The author declares no conflict of interest.

Reprints: Joseph D. Tobias, MD, Department of Anesthesiology & Pain Medicine, Nationwide Children’s Hospital, 700 Children’s Dr, Columbus, OH 43205 (e-mail:

© 2013 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.