As the Covid-19 lockdown continues to ease all over Europe, doctors in the Netherlands have warned that excessive use of laughing gas as a "high" can lead to serious spinal injuries – including, in the worst cases, patients being wheelchair-bound.
According to the Dutch association of neurologists, 64 young adults have been hospitalised over the past two years alone from overindulging in the gas – more correctly known as nitrous oxide – and the average age of those diagnosed as paraplegic and confined to wheelchairs was just 22.
In actual fact, suggest the medics, the number of young people affected by the gas is even higher than those figures indicate – because their sampling was based on data from only 42 of 78 hospitals that reported instances of nitrous oxide-related injuries.
“We decided to issue this warning because overall we are seeing a significant rise in the number of victims of this gas – and in the quantities of it they’re consuming,” says Barry Ruijter, a neurologist at an Amsterdam hospital.
The colourless, odourless gas, which is still legal for the moment, is sold in balloons that are filled from pressurised cannisters – known as “whippets” – often at the side of the street during festivals or at parties – sometimes, ironically, even at parties where alcohol in banned.
Research from the Trimbos Institute, which studies addiction, showed that more than 37 per cent of Dutch party-goers use laughing gas on a regular basis and so there are worries that as the Covid-19 lockdown eases this summer it will be big business as a "legal high", allegedly delivering "euphoria, relaxation and calm".
“There are some kids who use more than 100 balloons a day and insist it’s totally harmless,” says Mr Ruijter.
“However, we believe it’s an addictive drug, even though that has yet to be scientifically proven. Hospitals and rehabilitation clinics are seeing more and more problem users.”
Sales are reported to be “ballooning” by several hundred per cent a year.
In medical terms, the gas depletes the body’s stores of vitamin B12. This, in turn, damages the spinal cord over time, pretty much in proportion to the degree to which it’s inhaled – though once the spinal damage has taken hold it can be exacerbated by other factors.
Symptoms develop gradually. They often begin with something as innocuous as a headache. They then develop into tingling in the arms and legs, which turns to numbness as it worsens. Where it develops into spinal cord injury it can sometimes be permanent.
A key problem, says Anne Bruijnes of the neurologists' association, is that young people are unwilling to talk about the symptoms when they begin to emerge, even to their friends. That means they're typically discovered late. "It's a real shame," she said.