Anesthesiologist: Your Surgical Anesthesia & Pain Management Specialist

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS

What is an anesthesiologist?

An anesthesiologist is a physician who specializes in relieving pain and providing total medical care for patients before, during and after surgery. Anesthesiologists are dedicated to protecting and regulating your critical life functions during surgery. As a pain management specialist, an anesthesiologist focuses on pain relief for patients both inside and outside the surgery department in such areas as intensive care units (ICUs) and pain clinics. They serve an important role in labor and delivery units administering epidurals and surgical anesthesia for cesarean deliveries.

An anesthesiologist typically: 

  • Evaluates your medical history, medical condition, and readiness for surgery

  • Collaborates and consults with other members of your medical and surgical teams

  • Orders and interprets laboratory tests and X-rays

  • Administers pain-relieving drugs and local, regional and general anesthesia

  • Monitors, protects and regulates all your vital signs and critical life functions during procedures that require anesthesia 

  • Prescribes medications

  • Diagnoses and treats surgical and anesthesia complications during and after surgery, life-threatening conditions requiring critical care, acute and chronic pain conditions, and sleep disorders

  • Provides palliative, hospice, and end-of-life care

Who should see an anesthesiologist?

Most people will see an anesthesiologist when they have any type of surgery or procedure that requires anesthesia. An anesthesiologist will see you beforehand for a preoperative evaluation of your medical condition and your readiness for surgery. After that, you may not see or be aware that the anesthesiologist is caring for you. However, he or she will be overseeing your care both during and after surgery until you leave the recovery room.

You may also see an anesthesiologist during an ICU stay, childbirth, end-of-life hospice care, or treatment for chronic pain or sleep disorders.

When should you see an anesthesiologist?

It is likely that an anesthesiologist will care for you if you develop any of the following symptoms or conditions: 

  • Acute pain conditions

  • Any life-threatening condition or injury that requires critical care in an ICU

  • Any type of surgery or procedure that requires anesthesia

  • Childbirth pain management

  • Chronic pain disorders or cancer pain

  • Sleep disorders

You should also seek care from an anesthesiologist under the following situations:

  • You or a family member has a terminal disease that has progressed to an advanced stage and is not responding to treatment. In this case, the goal of treatment shifts from curing the disease to helping you live as fully and comfortably as possible. This type of care is called hospice or end-of-life care. It involves medically controlling pain and other symptoms, while providing psychological and spiritual support for you and your family.

  • You or a family member requires treatment focused on pain and symptom management. This is palliative care. You may still be actively treating your disease and receive palliative care.

If you’re in need of specialized pain management, search for an experienced anesthesiologist near you today.

What does an anesthesiologist treat?

An anesthesiologist treats conditions and diseases that require pain relief or complete anesthesia including:

  • Acute pain conditions including postoperative pain, pain after an injury, or pain with a medical illness

  • Advanced-stage diseases including diseases that have become terminal and require hospice or end-of-life care and those that are not terminal but require palliative care

  • Childbirth including pain relief with painkillers (analgesia), local anesthesia for episiotomy, regional anesthesia (epidural, spinal, or combined spinal-epidural), and general surgery anesthesia for C-section delivery

  • Chronic pain conditions including cancer, arthritis, back and neck injury, migraine, shingles, AIDS, and phantom limb pain following amputation

  • Life-threatening conditions or injuries including traumatic injuries, heart attack, stroke or brain injuries, shock, respiratory failure, kidney failure, severe infections, coma, and multiple system organ failure

  • Outpatient procedures requiring anesthesia or sedation including colonoscopy, radiological imaging, cardiac pacemaker or defibrillator placement, and cardiac catheterization

  • Sleep disorders including sleep apnea, periodic limb movement disorder, nocturnal behavior disorders, and narcolepsy

  • Surgeries requiring anesthesia including elective surgeries, emergency surgeries, trauma surgeries, and exploratory surgeries

What does an anesthesiologist test?

An anesthesiologist can order or perform a wide variety of diagnostic and screening tests including:

  • Imaging tests including X-ray, ultrasound, CT (computed tomography), and MRI (magnetic resonance imaging)

  • Laboratory tests including blood tests, urine tests, pregnancy tests, liver function tests, kidney function tests, and blood typing

  • Organ function tests including EKGs (electrocardiograms) and pulmonary (lung) function tests

  • Sleep studies including polysomnography

What procedures and treatments does an anesthesiologist perform?

Anesthesiologists order or perform various procedures and treatments to manage surgical and pain conditions. Common procedures and treatments include: 

  • Anesthesia management including sedation, inhaled anesthetics, intravenous anesthetics, muscle relaxants, narcotics, and other pain medications

  • Critical care procedures including intravenous catheterization or central line placement, tube placements, nutritional support, organ support, and emergency life support procedures

  • Pain management including medications, injections, nerve blocks, and electrical stimulation

  • Recovery procedures including reversing anesthesia and caring for you while you regain consciousness

  • Sleep treatments including continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) and medications

  • Vital sign and critical life function management including controlling your breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure with medications and devices

Anesthesiologist training and certification

In most cases, your surgeon or other specialist will select the anesthesiologist who will give you anesthesia during surgery. However, you may be able to request a specific anesthesiologist if you work with your surgeon beforehand. Anesthesiologists perform and monitor many procedures that you schedule in advance. They also work in private practice.

If you are researching anesthesiologists, keep in mind that education, training, experience, and board certification are key elements in establishing a doctor’s level of competence. A board-certified anesthesiologist is a licensed MD or DO who has completed an anesthesiology residency and passed certification requirements from a U.S. certifying board. A doctor must participate in an ongoing certification program to maintain board certification.

Doctors may also pursue certification in a subspecialty. Certification requires additional training beyond the residency program, as well as passing another exam. The additional training is sometimes known as a fellowship.

Subspecialties of anesthesiology include:

  • Critical care medicine focuses patients with acute, life-threatening illnesses or injuries.

  • Hospice and palliative medicine focuses on preventing or relieving pain and other symptoms of people with critical or terminal illnesses.

  • Pain medicine focuses on diagnosing, treating and managing pain and a range of painful disorders.

  • Pediatric anesthesiology focuses on relieving pain and providing total medical care for children before, during and after surgery.

  • Sleep medicine focuses on health conditions that prevent sleep, occur during sleep, or result from a lack of sleep.

Was this helpful?
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  2. Anesthesiology. American Board of Medical Specialties.
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  5. Know Your Anesthesiologist. American Society of Anesthesiologists.
  6. Palliative Care. University of Maryland Medical Center.
  7. Primary Certification in Anesthesiology. American Osteopathic Board of Anesthesiology.
  8. Q&A: Chronic Pain. American Society of Anesthesiologists.
  9. Qualifications of an Anesthesiologist. American Society of Anesthesiologists.
  10. The Role of the Anesthesiologist. American Society of Anesthesiologists.
  11. Treatments for Managing Pain. American Society of Anesthesiologists.
  12. Types of Pain Relief in Labor and Delivery. American Society of Anesthesiologists.
  13. What Is Anesthesiology? American Society of Anesthesiologists.
  14. Who Is an Anesthesiologist? American Society of Anesthesiologists.
Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Jan 21
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