How Does Anesthesia Work?

Doctor putting an oxygen mask on a patient under anesthesia at the hospital.Anesthesia is medicine used to manage pain during a wide range of medical procedures, including everything from tooth extractions and biopsies to appendectomies, cancer surgery, and childbirth. Anesthesia is an important part of these procedures; without it, many of them would be difficult or impossible to perform.

There are three main types of anesthesia: sedation, local, regional, and general. Sedation typically reduces pain throughout the body and makes you feel relaxed and drowsy. Local anesthesia affects a specific, small part of your body, such as a particular organ. Regional anesthesia affects a large part of your body, such as from the waist down. General anesthesia affects your entire body and renders you unconscious. Most types of anesthesia are injected or administered through an intravenous (IV) line, but general anesthesia may sometimes be administered through a breathing mask or tube.

The type of anesthesia you receive depends on the specific procedure you will be undergoing, as well as your medical history and circumstances. Certain people may face greater risks of medical complications than others from anesthesia, such as problems with brain function, malignant hyperthermia, breathing problems, and, in rare cases, death. Several factors can increase your risk of experiencing these complications, such as:

  • Heart disease
  • Diabetes
  • High blood pressure (hypertension)
  • Stroke
  • Lung conditions
  • Kidney conditions
  • Neurological disorders
  • Obesity
  • Allergies to anesthesia medication

The risks of anesthesia increase with the strength of its effects. Most of the severe side-effects associated with anesthesia occur in rare instances with general anesthesia. Sedation and local anesthesia, on the other hand, may rarely cause minor side-effects, such as itching at the site of injection. Regional anesthesia is also generally safe, but can sometimes cause headaches and may rarely cause nerve damage.

The best way to minimize any risks associated with anesthesia is to consult a licensed, board-certified anesthesiologist. If you’re receiving surgery, an anesthesiologist will typically meet with you ahead of time to discuss potential risks, and will also be present to monitor you throughout your procedure.

All content of this newsletter is intended for general information purposes only and is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Please consult a medical professional before adopting any of the suggestions on this page. You must never disregard professional medical advice or delay seeking medical treatment based upon any content of this newsletter. PROMPTLY CONSULT YOUR PHYSICIAN OR CALL 911 IF YOU BELIEVE YOU HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY.