From San Diego, at a meeting of the Society for Neuroscience
Among physicians most likely to become addicted to prescription drugs, anesthesiologists top the list. Their high rate of drug abuse has traditionally been blamed on easy access to opioids, a type of painkiller including morphine that many anesthesiologists administer on the job. However, new research suggests that the very nature of their work may put anesthesiologists at a higher risk of becoming addicts than other doctors are.
Neurologists, oncologists, and other physicians also have ready access to potential drugs of abuse. Because these doctors aren’t as likely to become addicts as anesthesiologists are, Mark Gold of the University of Florida in Gainesville and his colleagues speculated that factors besides easy access might be at play.
Gold’s team sampled the air above patients’ faces during surgeries, the place where an anesthesiologist usually works. Several analyses revealed high concentrations of the same opioids that the anesthesiologists had administered intravenously to the patients. The researchers suspect that patients exhale a small amount of the painkillers that have entered their blood.
Previous studies showed that repeated exposure to small doses of drugs can make people more susceptible to drug addiction. Gold and his colleagues suggest that the brains of anesthesiologists are primed for abuse because they inhale drugs in their patients’ breath.
If further tests confirm their theory, the researchers suggest that protective measures during surgery could reduce this occupational hazard.