Doctors warn ‘laughing gas’ abuse could cause spinal damage

New medical guidelines have been issued to treat damage

Doctors have issued a warning that ‘laughing gas’ abuse could lead to spinal damage, and have advised new medical guidelines.

Over recent years, there has been a steady increase in nitrous oxide abuse – AKA ‘laughing gas’ – and now, medical professionals have discovered that it could lead to some pretty serious consequences.

Commonly known as ‘nos’, the substance has gradually become the second most used recreational drug in the UK.


According to The Office of National Statistics, the drug proved to be most popular with 16-24-year-olds in the UK. This came as a 2020 study showed that 8.7 per cent of participants in this age range admitted to using it in the 12 months. It is commonly used in nightclubs, festivals and other late-night settings.

Discarded Nitrous Oxide canister
Discarded Nitrous Oxide canister. Credit: Simon McGill/Getty Images

Now, doctors have warned users that using nitrous oxide runs the risk of damage to the nervous system. In light of this, a series of guidelines have been issued, advising medical practitioners on how to treat patients.

Developed by healthcare professionals at Barts Health NHS Trust in London, the guide gave doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals a way to diagnose the ‘combined degeneration of the spinal cord’, and prevent users from suffering life-lasting disabilities. It has since been adopted by the Associated of British Neurologists.

Previously, there were no guidelines issued about the consequences of nitrous oxide abuse – meaning the condition was often left misdiagnosed or mistreated. Find a PDF version of the guidelines here.

“We developed these practical guidelines to try to standardise care for patients who have come from recreational nitrous oxide use,” said Alastair Noyce, a senior author of the report and Neurology professor at London’s Queen Mary university.


Used nitrous oxide canisters
Used nitrous oxide canisters. Credit: Jon Challicom/Getty Images

“If implemented correctly, they will ensure that patients get the treatment they need. We hope they will also alleviate pressure on hospitals by improving efficiency in the emergency department and reducing unnecessary admissions.”

Back in 2021, then-Home Secretary Priti Patel threatened to “take tough action” against young people found possessing laughing gas.

“[Nitrous oxide] can cause serious long-term effects such as vitamin B12 deficiency and anaemia,” she said, later acknowledging the “devastating impact” it can wreak on communities. “We are determined to do all we can to address this issue and protect the futures of our children and young people.”

Further, in 2015 the UK government announced that it would outlaw “any substance intended for human consumption that is capable of producing a psychoactive effect”. Later that year, Glastonbury festival organisers also banned the substance. This decision came after two tonnes of empty nitrous oxide canisters were gathered from the festival the previous year.

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