Our Health Library information does not replace the advice of a doctor. Please be advised that this information is made available to assist our patients to learn more about their health. Our providers may not see and/or treat all topics found herein.
What is anesthesia?
Anesthesia is a way to control pain during a surgery or procedure by using medicine called anesthetics. It can help control your breathing, blood pressure, blood flow, and heart rate and rhythm.
Anesthesia may be used to:
- Relax you.
- Block pain.
- Make you sleepy or forgetful.
- Make you unconscious for your surgery.
Other medicines may be used along with anesthesia, such as ones to help you relax or to reverse the effects of anesthesia.
What are the types of anesthesia?
- Local anesthesia numbs a small part of the body for minor procedures. For example, you may get a shot of medicine directly into the surgical area to block pain. You may stay awake during the procedure.
- Regional anesthesia blocks pain to a larger part of your body. You may also get medicine to help you relax or sleep. Types of regional anesthesia include:
- Peripheral nerve blocks. This is a shot of anesthetic to block pain around a specific nerve or group of nerves. Blocks are often used for procedures on the hands, arms, feet, legs, or face.
- Epidural and spinal anesthesia. This is a shot of anesthetic near the spinal cord and the nerves that connect to it. It blocks pain from an entire region of the body, such as the belly, hips, or legs.
- General anesthesia affects your brain and the rest of your body. You may get some anesthetics through a vein (intravenously, or IV), and you may breathe in some anesthetics. With general anesthesia, you're unconscious and you don't feel pain during the surgery.
What determines the type of anesthesia used?
The type of anesthesia used depends on several things:
- Your past and current health. This includes other surgeries you have had and the health problems you have, such as heart disease or diabetes. Tell your doctor if you or any family members have had a serious reaction to anesthetics or other medicines.
- The type of surgery. For example, you may need general anesthesia to ensure your comfort and safety during certain types of surgery.
- The results of tests, such as blood tests or an electrocardiogram (EKG, ECG).
Your doctor or nurse may prefer one type of anesthesia over another for your surgery. In some cases, your doctor or nurse may let you choose which type to have. Sometimes, such as in an emergency, you don't get to choose.
What are the risks and complications of anesthesia?
Major side effects and other problems of anesthesia aren't common, especially in people who are in good health.
But all anesthesia has some risk. For example:
- After general anesthesia heart problems, pneumonia, sore throat, or vomiting can occur.
- With high doses of local anesthesia, the anesthetic can go into the rest of the body and affect your brain or heart.
- After spinal or epidural anesthesia some people get headaches.
Your risk depends on the type of anesthesia you get, your age, your health, and how you respond to the medicines used. Some health problems, such as heart or lung disease, increase your chances of problems from anesthesia. Taking certain medicines, smoking, drinking alcohol, and using illegal drugs can also increase your chance of problems.
Your doctor or nurse will talk with you about the best type for you and will review risks, benefits, and other choices.
How can you prepare for anesthesia?
Your doctor or nurse will let you know what to do the night before and the day of the procedure. Here are some tips to help you prepare:
- Know when to stop eating and drinking. If you take any medicines regularly, ask your doctor or nurse about changes to your medicine routine for the day before or the day of your surgery.
- Try to stay calm. Many people are nervous before they have anesthesia and surgery. Mental relaxation methods, such as guided imagery or meditation, can help you relax. And some medicines can help you relax.
- Plan ahead for going home. Ask a friend or a family member to drive you home. Don't plan to drive yourself.
If your child is having surgery or a procedure, you can help him or her prepare. Let your child know what to expect. Be honest if he or she might feel pain. Be sure to tell your child that you will be close by.
What happens while you're under anesthesia and when you recover?
Before and during surgery, an anesthesia specialist will take charge of your comfort and safety. He or she will give you the anesthesia and closely monitor you. This means he or she will check your blood pressure, breathing, heart rate, and other vital body functions throughout the surgery. During surgery, the anesthesia specialist also will continue to give anesthesia to keep you free of pain.
When the procedure is complete, you will stop getting the medicine. How quickly the anesthesia wears off depends on the anesthetics and other medicines used, your age, your health, and on your response to the medicines.
After surgery, you will be taken to the recovery room. A nurse will check your vital signs and any bandages and ask about how much pain you have. If you are in pain, don't be afraid to say so.
When you first wake up from anesthesia, you may be confused. Or it may be hard to think clearly. This is normal. Don't do anything for 24 hours that requires attention to detail. This includes going to work, making important decisions, or signing any legal documents.
Some effects of anesthesia may last for many hours after surgery.
- You may have some numbness or less feeling in part of your body if you had local or regional anesthesia.
- Your muscle control and coordination may be affected.
- You may have nausea and vomiting. Most of the time, this can be treated and doesn't last long.
- You may feel cold and may shiver when you first wake up.
For minor surgeries, you may go home the same day. If surgery is more complicated, you may have to move to a hospital room to continue your recovery. If you stay in the hospital, your doctor or nurse will visit you to check on your recovery and answer any questions you have.
Other Works Consulted
- Brown DL (2010). Spinal, epidural, and caudal anesthesia. In RD Miller et al., eds., Miller's Anesthesia, 7th ed., pp. 1611–1638. Philadelphia: Churchill Livingstone.
- Dalens BJ (2010). Regional anesthesia in children. In RD Miller et al., eds., Miller's Anesthesia, 7th ed., pp. 2519–2700. Philadelphia: Churchill Livingstone.
- Dorian RS (2010). Anesthesia of the surgical patient. In FC Brunicardi et al., eds., Schwartz's Principles of Surgery, 9th ed., pp. 1731–1752. New York: McGraw-Hill.
- Hilton L, et al. (2009). Anesthesia, local. In B Narins, ed., Gale Encyclopedia of Surgery and Medical Tests: A Guide for Patients and Caregivers, 2nd ed., vol. 1, pp. 68–72. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale.
- Sanford TJ (2010). Anesthesia. In GM Doherty, ed., Current Diagnosis and Treatment: Surgery, 13th ed., pp. 135–150. New York: McGraw-Hill.
- White PF, Eng MR (2010). Ambulatory (outpatient) anesthesia. In RD Miller et al., eds., Miller's Anesthesia, 7th ed., pp. 2419–2459. Philadelphia: Churchill Livingstone.
- Wiener-Kronish JP, Fleisher LA (2016). Overview of anesthesia. In L Goldman, A Schafer, eds., Goldman-Cecil Medicine, 25th ed., vol. 2, pp. 2617–2620. Philadelphia: Saunders.
- Yip P, et al. (2009). Non-pharmacological interventions for assisting the induction of anaesthesia in children. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (3).
Current as of: May 27, 2020
Author: Healthwise Staff
Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine
E. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal Medicine
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine
John M. Freedman MD - Anesthesiology
To learn more about Healthwise, visit Healthwise.org.
© 1995-2020 Healthwise, Incorporated. Healthwise, Healthwise for every health decision, and the Healthwise logo are trademarks of Healthwise, Incorporated.