Indiana Paramedics Use Laughing Gas to Treat Pain

By Pat Anson, Editor

They say laughter is the best medicine, but an Indiana fire department has taken that cliché a step further by using “laughing gas” to treat emergency patients.

This week paramedics in the Indianapolis suburb of Fishers became the first in the state to use nitrous oxide for pain management when a patient suffers a broken bone, sprain or some other injury.  The goal is to reduce the use of prescription fentanyl – a potent opioid – and run the risk of a patient becoming addicted.  Fentanyl is currently used to manage pain in about 10 percent of Fishers’ emergency transports.

“It really comes down to the number of overdoses that we respond to. Fishers is not immune to that problem and we're trying to look at any and all ways that we can prevent people becoming addicted to opioids," Fishers Fire Captain John Mehling told WTTV. “If we can take even a little piece of that out of the care for the patients that we deal with, that might be that one step that keeps them from becoming addicted.”

Fire officials say patients must be alert enough to administer the gas themselves by holding a mask over their face while under the supervision of a paramedic. It takes about 2 to 3 minutes for the nitrous oxide to reduce pain and anxiety.    

“This is an effective and responsible adjustment to the care of our patients without the introduction of opiates into their system when possible,” said Fisher Fire Chief Steven Orusa.

Nitrous oxide has long been used to manage pain during dental procedures and is commonly used in European and Australian ambulances. It’s use by paramedics in the United States is relatively new.

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Laughing gas is also making a comeback in some U.S. hospitals, where it is offered as an alternative to epidurals for labor pain. St. Joseph’s Regional Medical Center in New Jersey has incorporated nitrous oxide into its “Alternative to Opiates” program, along with dry needles, nerve blocks and music therapy. St. Joseph’s has drawn international attention for significantly reducing the use of opioids in its emergency room, but is rated as one of the worst hospitals in the country by patients, who complain of poor pain care and long wait times.

Although nitrous oxide is considered safer than opioids, it has a long history of being abused for its euphoric effects. The gas was first used in “laughing gas parties” 200 years ago in Great Britain and is still used today by recreational drug users. When inhaled without oxygen mixed in, nitrous oxide can cause blood pressure to drop suddenly and lead to fainting and heart attacks.