HbA1c & Anesthesia

Diabetes management hinges on monitoring glycemia, with glycated hemoglobin (HbA1c) being a crucial indicator. HbA1c reflects average blood glucose levels over the past two to three months and is widely used to diagnose diabetes and monitor treatment efficacy. The discovery of HbA1c in the late 1960s revolutionized diabetes care by providing a reliable marker for long-term glycemic control, which is essential for reducing the risk of complications. While other tests like fructosamine and glycated albumin offer shorter-term glucose averages, HbA1c remains the gold standard for chronic glycemia assessment. For anesthesiologists, understanding HbA1c’s role is essential, as elevated levels can impact anesthetic management and surgical outcomes, emphasizing the need for careful preoperative glycemic assessment and optimization.

When a red blood cell is new, its hemoglobin (Hb) molecules have minimal glucose attached. Hemoglobin is a protein responsible for carrying oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body.

Glucose Binding
  1. Glucose Entry: Glucose (a simple sugar) can freely enter red blood cells through glucose transporters in the cell membrane.
  2. Initial Binding: When blood glucose levels are high, glucose molecules can attach to the amino groups on hemoglobin. This initial attachment is a reversible process, similar to a temporary interaction.
Formation of Glycated Hemoglobin (HbA1c)
  1. Schiff Base Formation: The reversible interaction between glucose and the amino group on hemoglobin forms a Schiff base (aldimine).
  2. Amadori Rearrangement: Over time, the Schiff base undergoes an Amadori rearrangement, forming a more stable compound called an Amadori product. In this context, the Amadori product is stable glycated hemoglobin (HbA1c).

The HbA1c test measures the percentage of hemoglobin that has glucose permanently attached to it. Since red blood cells have a lifespan of about 120 days, the HbA1c level reflects the average blood glucose levels over the past 2 to 3 months, with the last 8 to 12 weeks being the most influential.

Normal Range (Below 5.7%)

HbA1c values below 5.7% indicate non-diabetic blood sugar levels. For anesthesiologists, this means:

  • Normal Range: Indicative of non-diabetic blood sugar levels.
  • Implications: No significant implications for surgical or anesthetic management beyond standard care.

Patients in this range generally don’t need special interventions related to blood sugar control, so you can proceed with standard anesthetic protocols.

Prediabetes Range (5.7% to 6.4%)

Moving up, HbA1c values between 5.7% and 6.4% fall into the prediabetes range. This indicates:

  • Higher than Normal Blood Sugar Levels: Not high enough to be classified as diabetes.
  • Risk: Increased risk for developing diabetes, requiring closer monitoring and potential lifestyle interventions.

For anesthesiologists, awareness is key here. These patients have a higher risk of perioperative hyperglycemia, so keeping an eye on their blood sugar levels during and after surgery is essential.

Diabetes (6.5% and Above)

Host: Now, let’s discuss HbA1c values of 6.5% and above, which indicate diabetes. These can be further broken down into three categories:

Controlled Diabetes (6.5% to 7.0%)
  • Effective Management: Suggests effective diabetes management, but still requires ongoing monitoring and adjustment of treatment plans.
  • Anesthetic Management: Patients in this range are generally managing their diabetes well, but anesthesiologists should still monitor blood sugar levels to prevent any perioperative spikes or drops.
Moderately Elevated (7.0% to 8.0%)
  • Need for Better Control: Indicates a need for better glycemic control; possible adjustments in medication or lifestyle may be required.
  • Anesthetic Management: These patients may require more careful monitoring and potentially preoperative adjustments to their medication or insulin regimen to optimize blood sugar levels before surgery.
High HbA1c (Above 8.0%)
  • Poorly Controlled Diabetes: Suggests poorly controlled diabetes, necessitating comprehensive review and intervention.
  • Preoperative Planning: Requires detailed preoperative assessment and optimization of glycemic control to minimize surgical risks. High HbA1c levels are associated with increased risks of infection, poor wound healing, and cardiovascular complications during and after surgery.
  1. Red Cell Turnover
  • Low Red Cell Turnover: Falsely high HbA1c values can result when red cell turnover is slow, leading to a higher proportion of older red cells. This condition is common in patients with vitamin B12 or folate deficiency anemia.
  • High Red Cell Turnover: Conversely, rapid red cell turnover can produce falsely low HbA1c values. This scenario is seen in conditions like chronic hemolysis (e.g., thalassemia, glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase deficiency), patients undergoing treatment for iron, vitamin B12, or folate deficiency, and those treated with erythropoietin.

2. Hemoglobin Variants

  • Certain hemoglobin variants can alter HbA1c values, although modern methods for measuring HbA1c are generally unaffected by the most common variants. The National Glycohemoglobin Standardization Program (NGSP) provides detailed information on how different hemoglobin variants interfere with HbA1c measurements.

3. Chronic Kidney Disease

  • Advanced chronic kidney disease, especially in patients undergoing hemodialysis or erythropoietin treatment, can affect the relationship between HbA1c and mean blood glucose. Hemodialysis and altered red cell turnover can decrease measured HbA1c levels.

Addressing Discrepancies

When HbA1c values are higher or lower than expected based on mean glucose results, consider the following:

  • Higher than Expected HbA1c
  • Falsification of Blood Glucose Results: Patients might falsify their blood glucose readings or improve their glycemic management just before their appointment.
  • Postprandial Glucose Peaks: Blood glucose levels between meals, particularly postprandial peaks, might be higher than preprandial test results. Monitoring fingerstick blood glucose levels between meals or using short-term CGM can help reveal these patterns.
  • Low Red Cell Turnover: Conditions such as vitamin B12 or folate deficiency anemia can lead to falsely elevated HbA1c values.
  • Lower than Expected HbA1c
  • Undetected Nocturnal Hypoglycemia: Blood glucose levels may be low during periods when testing is not performed, such as nocturnal hypoglycemia. Adjusting the timing of fingerstick blood glucose monitoring or using CGM can help detect these patterns.
  • Reduced Red Cell Survival: Conditions like hemolysis or recovery from anemia can cause a disproportionate number of young red cells, leading to falsely low HbA1c values. Blood transfusions can also lower HbA1c levels.
  • Hemoglobinopathies: While most assays are unaffected by common hemoglobinopathies, it is crucial to verify with the laboratory that the assay used is appropriate.


Understanding the potential causes of unexpected or discordant HbA1c values is essential for effective diabetes management. By considering factors such as red cell turnover, hemoglobin variants, chronic kidney disease, and monitoring practices, healthcare providers can address discrepancies and ensure accurate assessment of glycemic control. For anesthesiologists, being aware of these issues is crucial for optimizing perioperative care and managing patients with diabetes effectively.


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