A study presented at ANESTHESIOLOGY 2011 found that older patients drove more safely than their younger counterparts after surgery and anesthesia care at an ambulatory surgery facility.

"With ambulatory surgical procedures becoming more common as well as the increased use of short acting anesthetics, our team recognized that patients may have a need to drive sooner than the 24-hour waiting period typically recommended," said lead investigator Asokumar Buvanendran, M.D. "This study examined the anesthestics' safety as it relates to a patient's ability to drive pre and post-surgery."

About the Study

Researchers tested 198 patients undergoing minor same day surgery using a driving simulator, depicting a drive from the hospital to their homes. Researchers tested them at two time points, immediately before surgery and again right before they were to leave the center, after a minor surgical procedure while under sedation.

Researchers' primary measurement was the amount of "weaving" on the road. They also measured the number of accidents and the number of driving violations (for example, running red lights). They found that weaving after surgery (average of 1.64 feet) was essentially the same as before surgery (1.63 feet), indicating that the drugs given for surgery had effectively worn off by the time patients were discharged and ready to leave the hospital.

"We also looked to see if older patients were in more or less pain than younger patients and whether that played into the ability to drive," said Dr. Buvanendran. "We found the amount of pain did not play much importance in the final analysis, but the speed driven did. Older patients drove slower and had corresponding better weaving scores because they were able to correct deviations more quickly. This more cautious driving style led to an overall better and safer driving score."

Dr. Buvanendran and his team believe that older patients may be more sensitive or perceptive to the effects of anesthesia than younger patients and the older patients notice this (consciously or not) and correspondingly drive more cautiously, an inherent safety mechanism. That said, overall age was not an effective indicator of reduced ability to drive. More research is needed to evaluate the effects of age and driving both under more controlled conditions and real world conditions, as it is possible that older patients may have better real-world driving ability due to their more cautious driving style. Patients driving proficiency however, at discharge from the medical center after minor surgery under sedation remained similar to their proficiency before surgery.