What to Know About Anesthesia


Amy Bernstein

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If you’re going to have surgery, you might have questions about anesthesia. It’s natural to wonder how the anesthesia will work, what risks you should be aware of, and if you will feel pain.

What Is Anesthesia?

Anesthesia is a treatment that involves using medicine to prevent pain during a medical procedure. It is used for many types of procedures from small ones, like dental work, to major ones, like open heart surgery.

There are three types of anesthesia:

  • Local anesthesia is used for minor procedures. Usually a drug is injected to numb a small part of your body

  • Regional anesthesia involves injecting a drug near a cluster of nerves to numb a larger area of your body. The two most common forms are epidural anesthesia, often used during labor and childbirth, and spinal anesthesia. Regional anesthesia may be all that’s necessary to block pain, but depending on the procedure, you may also be sedated to make you more comfortable or relieve anxiety.

  • General anesthesia makes you completely unconscious and unable to feel pain or any other sensations. You may receive anesthetic drugs through an IV or inhale them through a breathing mask.

Your type and amount of anesthesia will be tailored to you based on personal factors, including your age, weight, and medical condition, in addition to the type of procedure you are having.

Who Gives Anesthesia?

Anesthesiologists are doctors who have special training in giving anesthetic drugs and managing the well-being of patients under anesthesia. Certified registered nurse anesthetists (CRNAs) may give anesthetics or work with your anesthesiologist. Anesthesia assistants (AAs) may also assist in your care under the supervision of an anesthesiologist.

Your anesthesia team is responsible for making sure you are safe during surgery by watching your breathing, heart rate, and other critical functions. They can also help with pain management after surgery.

What Should I Expect Before Surgery?

Before surgery, you’ll probably meet with your anesthesiologist to make a plan just for you. Your anesthesiologist may ask you questions about:

  • Allergies to medications and other items such as latex
  • Long-term health problems, such as high blood pressure or diabetes, and any recent changes in your health

  • Previous experiences or problems with anesthesia
  • Recent surgery or procedures

This meeting is a good opportunity to ask any questions you have about anesthesia. Make sure you understand any special instructions your anesthesiologist gives you. For instance, you will need to know when to stop eating and drinking before surgery and what medications you should or should not take before and after surgery.

What Are the Risks?

Anesthesia is considered very safe for most people. However, some people are at higher risk of complications, including older adults, people with certain inherited traits that make them more sensitive to anesthesia, and people with some chronic conditions, such as diabetes.

Older adults are also at risk of lingering side effects after anesthesia, including postoperative delirium, which causes confusion and disorientation for up to a week after surgery. In some cases, older adults develop long-term problems with memory and concentration.

Smokers are at higher risk of anesthesia-related complications like pneumonia and heart attacks. If you smoke, talk with your doctor about quitting before surgery and remaining smoke-free after the procedure to aid recovery.