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Learning About Anesthesia

What is anesthesia?

Anesthesia controls pain. And it keeps all your organs working normally during surgery or another kind of procedure.

Anesthesia can relax you. It can also make you sleepy or forgetful. Or it may make you unconscious. It depends on what kind you get.

Your anesthesia provider (anesthesiologist) will make sure you are comfortable and safe during the procedure or surgery.

There are different types of anesthesia.

  • Local anesthesia. This type numbs a small part of the body. Doctors use it for simple procedures.
    • You get a shot in the area the doctor will work on.
    • You will feel some pressure during the procedure.
    • You may stay awake. Or you may get medicine to help you relax or sleep.
  • Regional anesthesia. This type blocks pain to a larger area of the body. It can also help relieve pain right after surgery. And it may reduce your need for other pain medicine after surgery. There are different types. They include:
    • Peripheral nerve block. This is a shot near a specific nerve or group of nerves. It blocks pain in the part of the body supplied by the nerve. This is often used for procedures on the hands, arms, feet, legs, or face.
    • Epidural and spinal anesthesia. This is a shot near the spinal cord and the nerves around it. It blocks pain from an entire area of the body, such as the belly, hips, or legs.
  • General anesthesia. This type affects the brain and the whole body. You may get it through a small tube placed in a vein (IV). Or you may breathe it in. You are unconscious and will not feel pain. During the surgery, you will be comfortable. Later, you will not remember much about the surgery.

What type will you have?

The type of anesthesia you have depends on many things, such as:

  • The type of surgery or procedure and the reason you are having it.
  • Test results, such as blood tests.
  • How worried you feel about the surgery.
  • Your health. Your doctor and nurses will ask you about any past surgeries. They will ask about any health problems you may have, such as diabetes, lung or heart disease, or a history of stroke. They will want to know if you take medicine, such as blood thinners. Your doctor may also ask if any family members have had any problems with anesthesia.

You will talk with your anesthesia provider about your options. In many cases, you may be able to choose the type of anesthesia you have.

What are the risks of anesthesia?

Major side effects are not common. But all types of anesthesia have some risk. Your risk depends on your overall health. It also depends on the type of anesthesia you have and how you respond to it. Serious but rare risks include breathing problems, heart attack, stroke, and reaction to the medicine.

Some health conditions increase the risk of problems. Your anesthesia provider will find out about any health problems you have that may affect your care.

Your anesthesia provider will closely watch your vital signs during anesthesia and surgery. This includes checking your blood pressure and heart rate. This may help you avoid problems from anesthesia.

What can you do to prepare?

You will get a list of instructions to help you prepare. Your doctor will let you know what to expect when you get to the hospital, during the surgery, and after.

You will get instructions about when to stop eating and drinking.

If you take medicine, you will get instructions about what you can and can't take before surgery.

You will be asked to sign a consent form that says you understand the risks of anesthesia. Before you do, your anesthesia provider will talk with you about the best type for you and the risks and benefits of that type.

Many people are nervous before they have anesthesia and surgery. Ask your doctor about ways to relax before surgery. These may include relaxation exercises or medicine.

What can you expect after having anesthesia?

Right after the surgery, you will be in the recovery room. Nurses will make sure you are comfortable. As the anesthesia wears off, you may feel some pain and discomfort from your surgery.

Tell someone if you have pain. Pain medicine works better if you take it before the pain gets bad.

You may feel some of the effects of anesthesia for a while. It takes time for the effects of the medicine to completely wear off..

  • If you had local or regional anesthesia you may feel numb and have less feeling in part of your body. It may also take a few hours for you to be able to move and control your muscles as usual.
  • When you first wake up from general 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.

Other common side effects of anesthesia include:

  • Nausea and vomiting. This does not usually last long. It can be treated with medicine.
  • A slight drop in body temperature. You may feel cold and shiver when you first wake up.
  • A sore throat, if you had general anesthesia.
  • Muscle aches or weakness.
  • Feeling tired.

For minor surgeries, you may go home the same day. For other surgeries you may stay in the hospital. Your doctor will check on your recovery from the anesthesia. He or she will answer any questions you may have.

Follow-up care is a key part of your treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor or nurse call line if you are having problems. It's also a good idea to know your test results and keep a list of the medicines you take.

Where can you learn more?

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