Anesthesia: An overview
If you're headed for surgery, you'll probably need (and want) some form of anesthesia so you don't feel any pain during the procedure.
Though anesthesia is safe, it's normal to feel a bit of apprehension before surgery—especially if you need to be fully sedated during the procedure.
Learning about the different types of anesthesia and how they work may help ease your mind.
Types of anesthesia
There are three different types of anesthetic techniques as well as sedation, according to the American Society of Anesthesiologists (ASA). Depending on the type of procedure you need and your overall health, your anesthetist (a physician or nurse with special training in anesthesia) will administer the type of anesthesia that is right for you.
Local anesthesia. This anesthesia is generally used for minor surgery and numbs only the specific area of the body that requires anesthesia, such as your hand or foot.
Local anesthesia typically won't cause you to fall asleep, and usually it does not require the presence of an anesthetist.
Regional anesthesia. This type of anesthesia involves an injection next to a large cluster of nerves in order to numb a larger area of the body than local anesthesia. Spinal and epidural injections—often used during childbirth or prostate cancer surgery—are common forms of regional anesthesia.
With regional anesthesia, you may be awake for the procedure, or you may receive a sedative that helps you sleep.
General anesthesia. This form of anesthesia puts you into a deep sleep.
While you're in surgery, your anesthetist will constantly monitor and adjust the levels of medication that you receive in order to keep you unconscious, relax your muscles and control your pain.
Awareness during general anesthesia is rare, and you probably won't remember surgery.
Sedation. Sedation analgesia uses a combination of medications and local anesthetic to induce a semiconscious state. Unlike anesthesia—which blocks all feeling, including pain—analgesia relieves pain without total loss of feeling or movement.
Depending on the surgical procedure, you may have minimal, moderate or deep sedation. With minimal sedation, you'll be relaxed and may be awake. With moderate sedation, you may fall into a light sleep, and you may not remember the surgery. Under deep sedation, however, you will sleep through the entire procedure and remember little afterward.
For procedures such as breast biopsy, vasectomy, or endoscopy, your doctor may choose sedation over general anesthesia in order to speed up recovery time and reduce side effects, such as nausea.
Preparing for anesthesia
Before the procedure you will be asked to provide a complete medical history to help your physician create an anesthetic plan that is safe and effective for you.
As part of this, you may need to answer some questions, such as:
- Do you have any allergies?
- What are your current medications and dosage?
- Are you taking any over-the-counter medications or herbal remedies?
- Do you regularly use tobacco, drink alcohol or take any other kind of drug (including illegal substances)?
It is important that you answer these questions completely and honestly. Remember, your answers are confidential—and essential to your safety during the procedure.
You'll also receive specific instructions about what (if anything) you can eat or drink the night before the procedure and whether you'll be able to drive afterwards.
You will be allowed to return home within one to four hours after most surgeries, but some require an overnight stay.
Because you may feel drowsy from anesthesia or feel discomfort, do not attempt to return to your regular activities right away.
The ASA recommends planning for at least one full day of recovery, including the following important considerations:
- Do not drink alcohol or use nonprescription medications.
- Do not drive a car or operate other complex machines, and do not make any important decisions.
- If you have small children, arrange for child care during this period.
- You may not feel like eating right away. Nourish yourself with liquids first. Then you can try a light meal such as soup, toast, rice or yogurt.