If an infant or toddler has surgery requiring anesthesia, it could raise the risk of learning disabilities later in life, a new study suggests.
The study, published in the journal Pediatrics and conducted by Mayo Clinic researchers, found that kids who are administered general anesthesia before age 2 may have as much as a three times higher risk of learning problems.
However, the risk seems to only apply to small kids who have had more than one surgery, HealthDay reported.
"A single exposure to anesthesia in surgery has not been shown to be [a] problem, so parents can be reassured that this is not likely to cause any problems," study researcher Dr. Randall Flick, of the Mayo Clinic, told HealthDay.
In the study, researchers analyzed the health data of 350 kids who'd had surgery -- and undergone anesthesia -- before age 2, and 700 kids who didn't have any procedures involving anesthesia before age 2. The kids were all born between 1976 and 1983.
They found that 21.3 percent of 19-year-olds had a learning disability, while 23.6 percent of people who had been exposed just once to anesthesia before age 2 had a learning a disability. Nearly 37 percent of people who been exposed to anesthesia multiple times before age 2 had a learning disability, according to the study.
However, it's important to note that this is just a link, researchers said. It's possible that the condition itself -- which required the baby or child to have surgery, and thus need anesthesia -- could also spur the learning disability, according to CNN.
Indeed, it's impossible to control for the influence of the surgery itself, says Dr. David Reich, chairman of anesthesiology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. "Surgery causes trauma to tissues, inflammation, and blood loss. Postoperatively, there are variable degrees of inflammation, disability,\ and pain. The skill of the surgeon and the experience of the team before, during, and after surgery all vary widely and are difficult to quantify."
In addition, HealthyDay points out that there have been some changes in the way anesthesia is administered to children -- including closer monitoring, and different anesthesia -- since the 1970s and 1980s.
WebMD reported that the Food and Drug Administration commissioned and funded this study after meeting last spring to look at the evidence surrounding anesthesia's effects on the brain. The FDA director of anesthesia and analgesia products had said that more research is needed before drawing "firm conclusions."
Study researcher Flick told WebMD: "I fully support the FDA's conclusion that we do not yet have sufficient information to prompt a change in practice."
Past research has linked anesthesia with learning disabilities. NPR reported that kids who are exposed to anesthesia because of multiple surgeries before the age of 4 have a higher risk of learning disabilities.