Nitrous Oxide: Therapeutic use, Treatment. Nitrous Oxide rehab.

Last modified: Saturday, 20. June 2009 - 2:06 pm

Official names: Nitrous oxide
Street names: N20, nitrous, laughing gas, whippets, whip-its, hippie crack
Drug classifications: Not scheduled


Key terms

ANALGESIC: A type of drug that alleviates pain without loss of consciousness.
HUFFING: Breathing mind-altering fumes from a cloth that has been soaked in a volatile substance and stuffed into the mouth.
HYPOXIA: A condition in which too little oxygen reaches body tissues.
NITRIC OXIDE: NO; a potentially toxic gas found both in the atmosphere and in the body in small amounts. In the body, nitric oxide helps to move oxygen to the tissues and transmit nerve impulses.
RECREATIONAL USE: The casual and infrequent use of a drug or substance, often in social situations, for its pleasurable effects.
RELAPSE: Term used in substance abuse treatment and recovery that refers to an addict’s return to substance use and abuse following a period of abstinence or sobriety.



Nitrous oxide is a gas with anesthetic (numbness-causing) and (painkilling) analgesic properties. It was first discovered in 1772 by English scientist, theologian, and philosopher Joseph Priestly. Priestly was also the man who co-discovered oxygen (which he termed “phlogisticated air”). In 1776, he wrote about the discovery of N20, which he called “nitrous air.”
The first scientist to discover the unique anesthetic and intoxicant effects of nitrous oxide was Sir Humphry Davy, an English physiologist whose self-experimentations with the gas became legendary. In Davy’s book Researches, Chemical and Philosophical: Chiefly concerning nitrous oxide, or dephiogisticated nitrous air, and its respiration (1800) he suggests that nitrous may be a useful anesthetic in surgical situations, and “appears capable of destroying physical pain.”
However, despite Davy’s writings on the subject, nitrous oxide had no serious medical use for another four decades. Instead, nitrous, now nicknamed “laughing gas,” enjoyed popularity as a way for the English upper classes to entertain themselves at social gatherings. Among those who regularly inhaled the gas for its pleasurable and uninhibiting properties were the poets Robert Southey and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and the author Peter Roget (of Roget’s Thesaurus). Laughing gas was also demonstrated in theaters and at festivals; in 1824, a run of performances at London’s West End Aldelphi Theatre entitled “M. Henry’s Mechanical and Chemical Demonstrations” showed the effects of nitrous oxide on audience volunteers to a disbelieving crowd.
Meanwhile in America, laughing gas was appearing in traveling medicine shows and carnivals. Gardner Quincy Colton, a former medical student, presided over one of these nitrous oxide demonstrations in Hartford, Connecticut, in December of 1844. One of the audience volunteers who had just inhaled the gas injured his leg without feeling any pain. In the audience was dentist Horace Wells, who took note of this and immediately seized on the idea that nitrous oxide might be a powerful anesthetic in the operating room.
Enlisting Colton to bring his nitrous oxide equipment to the dentist’s office, Wells used himself as the test subject. Colton administered the gas while a dentist colleague and friend of Wells’ pulled a tooth from his mouth. The experiment was successful; Wells woke up shortly after and reported feeling no pain from the procedure. Buoyed by this success, Wells began using nitrous oxide as an anesthetic in his dental practice.
In January 1845, at the Harvard Medical School and the Massachusetts General Hospital, Wells made a presentation in which he used a bag of nitrous oxide to sedate the patient before removing a tooth. Unfortunately, the bag was withdrawn too soon, and the patient complained of pain after the procedure, so the experiment was considered a failure. Nitrous would remain an entertaining oddity until Gardner Colton, the medical school dropout and traveling showman who first introduced the gas to Wells, returned it to medicine in the early 1860s. Starting his own business, Colton provided anesthetic services for dentists using 100% pure nitrous oxide gas. His business proved successful.
In 1868, Chicago dentist Dr. Edmund Andrews published a paper reporting his use of an 80%/20% mix of nitrous and oxygen on patients undergoing dental surgery. The mixture allowed for a longer period of unconsciousness for lengthy procedures. Later that same year, a UK company, Coxeter and Sons, developed a gas mask and tank system for the administration of nitrous oxide and other gases during surgery. Also that year, another English firm, Barth, compressed N20 into cylinders. By 1871, companies in both America and the UK had succeeded in producing compressed and liquid nitrous oxide in cylinders.
By the end of the century, nitrous oxide had also gained popularity as a anesthesia for women in labor, remaining a standard anesthetic choice for that purpose in the United Kingdom.
Unfortunately, the laughing gas parties and parlor tricks of the early 1800s have evolved into abuse, and nitrous oxide is one of many commonly abused inhalants in the United States. The National Inhalant Prevention Coalition reports that one in five American children have used an inhalant by eighth grade.

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