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What Is Anesthesia?

No doubt about it, getting an operation can be stressful. If you're scheduled for surgery, you may have questions or concerns about anesthesia. The thought of being unconscious or temporarily losing sensation can be downright unnerving.

From a minor procedure with a shot to numb the area to a more serious surgery in which you will be "asleep," knowing the basics about anesthesia may help answer your questions and ease some concerns.

Anesthesia is the use of medicine to prevent or reduce the feeling of pain or sensation during surgery or other painful procedures (such as getting stitches). Given as an injection or through inhaled gases or vapors, different types of anesthesia affect the nervous system in various ways by blocking nerve impulses and, therefore, pain.

In today's hospitals and surgical centers, highly trained professionals use a wide variety of safe, modern medicine and extremely capable monitoring technology. An anesthesiologist is a doctor who specializes in giving and managing anesthetics — the medications that numb an area of the body or help you fall and stay asleep.

In addition to giving anesthesia medicine to prepare you for the surgery, the anesthesiologist will:

  • monitor your major bodily functions (such as breathing, heart rate and rhythm, body temperature, blood pressure, and blood oxygen levels) during surgery
  • address any problems that might arise during surgery
  • manage any pain you may have after surgery
  • keep you as comfortable as possible before, during, and after surgery

A specially trained certified registered nurse anesthetist (CRNA), fellow or resident physician, or student nurse anesthetist, who work with the anesthesiologist and surgeon, may assist in giving you anesthesia. CRNAs may work under the supervision of a anesthesiologist or on their own — it all depends on the state or hospital.

What Are the Types of Anesthesia?

Anesthesia is broken down into three main categories: general, regional, and local. All of these can be given through various methods using medicines that affect the nervous system.

Think of the brain as a central computer that controls all the body's functions and the nervous system as a network that relays messages back and forth from the brain to different parts of the body. It does this via the spinal cord, which runs from the brain down through the backbone and contains threadlike nerves that branch out to every organ and body part.

General anesthesia. The goal is to make and keep the person completely unconscious (or "asleep") during the operation, with no sensations, feeling of pain, awareness, movement, or memory of the surgery. General anesthesia can be given through an IV (which requires a needle stick into a vein, usually in the arm) or by inhaling gases or vapors.

Regional anesthesia. An anesthetic drug is injected near a cluster of nerves, numbing a larger area of the body (such as below the waist). Most people who are given regional anesthesia are deeply sedated or asleep for the procedure. Rarely, older kids or those might be at risk by being asleep may be awake or lightly sedated for this type of anesthesia.

Local anesthesia. An anesthetic drug numbs only a small, specific part of the body (for example, a hand or patch of skin). Depending on the size of the area, local anesthesia can be given as a shot, spray, or ointment. With local anesthesia, a person may be awake, sedated, or asleep. Local anesthesia is often used for minor surgeries and outpatient procedures (when patients come in for an operation and can go home that same day). If you are having surgery in a clinic or doctor's office (such as the dentist or dermatologist), this is probably the type of anesthetic that will be used.

The type and amount of anesthesia will be specifically tailored to your needs and will depend on various factors, including your age and weight, the type and area of the surgery, any allergies you may have, and your current medical condition.

What Are the Common Side Effects?

You will most likely feel disoriented, groggy, and a little confused when waking up after surgery. Some other common side effects, which should go away fairly quickly, include:

  • nausea or vomiting, which can usually be alleviated with anti-nausea medication
  • chills or shakiness
  • sore throat (if a tube was used to help with breathing)

What Are the Risks?

Anesthesia today is very safe. In very rare cases, anesthesia can cause complications (such as strange heart rhythms, breathing problems, allergic reactions to medications, and even death). The risks depend on the kind of procedure, the condition of the patient, and the type of anesthesia used. Be sure to talk to your doctor, surgeon, and/or anesthesiologist about any concerns.

Most complications can be prevented by giving the anesthesiologist complete information before the surgery about things like:

  • your current and past health (including diseases or conditions such as recent or current colds, or other issues such as snoring or depression)
  • any medications (prescription and over-the-counter), supplements, or herbal remedies you are taking
  • any allergies (especially to foods, medications, or latex) you may have
  • whether you smoke, drink alcohol, or take any recreational drugs
  • any previous reactions you or any family member has had to anesthesia

To ensure your safety during the surgery or procedure, it's extremely important to answer all of the anesthesiologist's questions as honestly and thoroughly as possible. Things that may seem harmless could affect how you react to the anesthesia.

It's also important that you follow the doctor's recommendations about what not to do before the surgery. You probably won't be able to eat or drink (usually nothing after midnight the day before) and may need to stop taking herbal supplements or other medications for a certain period of time before surgery.

You can rest assured that the safety of anesthetic procedures has improved a lot over the years, thanks to advances in technology and the extensive training anesthesiologists receive. The more informed, calm, and reassured you are about the surgery and the safety of anesthesia, the easier the experience will probably be.

Reviewed by: Judith A. Jones, MD
Date reviewed: September 2015

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Related Resources:
American College of Surgeons
The website of the American College of Surgeons provides consumer information about common surgeries such as appendectomy.
American Medical Association (AMA)
The AMA has made a commitment to medicine by making doctors more accessible to their patients. Contact the AMA at: American Medical Association 515 N. State St. Chicago, IL 60610 (312) 464-5000
National Institutes of Health (NIH)
NIH is an Agency under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and offers health information and scientific resources.