Laughing gas makes a comeback as painkiller in ambulances

Normally used in dentist’s offices and hospitals, nitrous oxide — yes, laughing gas — is starting to turn up again in ambulances in some rural areas where medical workers with clearance to provide more traditional painkillers often aren’t on board.

It gives advanced emergency medical technicians, who are a step down from higher-level paramedics, a way to help relieve patients’ pain and anxiety on what can sometimes be long trips to a hospital.

“For someone to be in pain for that extended period of time, you know we want to try to ease that,” said Scott Brinkman, chief of emergency medical services in Stowe, a ski resort town that sees many related injuries and started using nitrous a year ago.

Nitrous oxide equipment has been sold to ambulance crews in at least 30 states in the past three years, including Maine, New York, North Dakota, Oregon, Texas and Wisconsin, according to Henry Schein Medical, the sole distributor of the version for ambulances.

Nitrous has been more commonly used in ambulances in Europe and Australia.

Nitrous oxide is also not an opioid, a bonus as the country grapples with a drug crisis. Experts have blamed prescription opioids for spikes in overdoses, and some patients simply might not want to be given an opioid, or their injury doesn’t require something so strong.

In Stowe, for example, a woman who dislocated her shoulder asked not to be given narcotics because she was recovering from addiction, Brinkman said.

The drug also bridges the gap between a cold pack and narcotics, said Michael Chiarella, director of operations at Richmond Rescue in Richmond, Vermont, which also handles many injuries suffered at a nearby ski resort.

The drug is delivered by breathing through a mask or tube that the patient holds so they can regulate how much they are getting.

“It’s fast-acting and it wears off,” said Jeremy Oleson, an advanced EMT and chief of the fire department in Twin Mountain, New Hampshire.

Nitrous was used on some ambulances in the 1980s and 1990s until the product line was sold. The portable product is now back on the market with another manufacturer.

The renewed use of nitrous on ambulances comes as some states have begun to allow advanced EMTs, which have less training than paramedics, to administer it, in line with national guidelines.

Stowe, a largely volunteer squad, is adding a unit to a second ambulance this fall at a cost of about $3,800, plus costs for disposable supplies and some cleaning agents, as…

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