First responders using 'laughing gas' to ease patients' pain

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KAUKAUNA, Wis. (WBAY) -- A pain-relieving gas, often used at the dentist's office, is starting to be used more often by emergency personnel around the nation.

Often referred to as "laughing gas," nitrous oxide isn’t something you usually associate with first responders, but Kaukauna, Wisconsin’s Fire Department has been using it since 2005.

“I administered it on several calls for different situations,” said Assistant Chief Chad Gerrits, of the Kaukauna Fire Dept. “Simply put, you turn on the oxygen and hold it to their mouth, deep breaths and then after a minute, we turn on the nitrous oxide.”

The nitrous oxide is self-medication, meaning the patient will hold the mask to their face themselves and slowly remove it when they start to feel it kick in. However, a first responder is always there and monitoring the intake.

Gerrits said it’s a quick-acting pain reliever that usually helps with anxiety, especially while treating kids.

“When I had the boy break his femur, which is a painful break, he actually wanted to give it (nitrous oxide) to me, ‘You got to try this,' he said to me, so it worked pretty well,” said Gerrits.

Because nitrous oxide leaves the body quicker than stronger IV medications, Dr. Kerry Ahrens, an emergency medicine physician with BayCare Clinic in Kaukauna, said it would make her exams easier.

“You take the mask off and they will come back to baseline and I can get my exam if I need to, so I think that is helpful in that respect,” said Dr. Ahrens.

Dr. Ahrens said it’s also usually a safer choice when it comes to the nation’s opioid epidemic.

“It’s a good choice for first responders because they are not pushing narcotics like Fentanyl or Dilaudid,” said Dr. Ahrens. “For some patients, you never know who’s that person that needs that first push and then they’re hooked on it, so I think it’s a great choice.”

However, with any sedative, Dr. Ahrens said there are some negatives.

“If you use a sedative too long, you can go into respiratory depression and stop breathing,” said Dr. Ahrens.

But for the most part, both Dr. Arhens and Gerrits believe nitrous oxide is an option first responders should consider.

“It’s a rare choice in our EMS system right now, but not sure why honestly,” said Dr. Arhens.

“It’s a small package and it doesn’t take a lot of room to have it,” said Gerrits. “You always run into situations where this works and this doesn’t… so that is where it’s nice. Of course, I think any department would be better with it.”

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