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Shedding light on anesthesia
What to expect when you’re going under

» General anesthesia

» Regional anesthesia

» Local anesthesia

» Sedation

Before your procedure

You’ll meet with your anesthesiologist before your procedure so he or she can evaluate your medical condition. You’ll want to be sure your anesthesiologist knows about any:

  • drugs you take, including prescriptions, over-the-counter remedies, vitamins and herbal supplements
  • drug or food allergies you have
  • personal or family history of adverse anesthesia reactions
  • smoking, drinking or drug habits

Follow all instructions! For instance, you may be asked not to eat 12 hours before surgery.

Ask your anesthesiologist what to expect after surgery, especially if you’re being released the same day as your procedure. Find out who to call if you experience side effects after surgery and get a list of warning signs that mean you need emergency care.

For most people facing a surgical procedure, the thought of having anesthesia can cause more than a little anxiety. While anesthesia does carry some risk—which depends on your health, the procedure and the kind of drugs used—serious complications are rare. In fact, complications from anesthesia have declined dramatically over the last 25 years, due largely to new drugs and technology.

Knowing what to expect from anesthesia can help calm your fears. Anesthesia drugs work by blocking nerve signals to and from your brain. The type of anesthesia you’ll receive depends on your condition and surgery. Here’s a rundown of four main types:

General anesthesia

General anesthesia is most often used for major surgery, during which you’re unconscious. The anesthesiologist will inject you with drugs that block pain, movement and awareness of the procedure. Some drugs block your memory of the surgery. Your anesthesiologist will use drugs tailored for you. Once you’re “asleep,” he or she may insert a breathing tube in your windpipe, which may cause a slight sore throat or hoarseness later. You may feel drowsy and weak for a few days after the procedure. Though rare, the most serious risks of general anesthesia involve irregularities in heart rhythm, breathing, blood pressure and body temperature, which can cause a heart attack, stroke or death.

Regional anesthesia

Regional anesthesia numbs a region of your body while you remain alert. The anesthesiologist will inject drugs around a single nerve or a cluster of nerves. You’ll likely receive a sedative, too, which will relax you and make you feel sleepy. You may feel movement or pressure, but no pain. Regional anesthesia is most commonly used during childbirth (an epidural) and for prostate surgery. Risk factors include nerve damage at the site of the injection, although this is very rare. If you have an epidural or spinal regional anesthesia, you may experience a “spinal” headache, which your healthcare team will treat immediately.

Local anesthesia

Local anesthesia numbs a small, targeted area by injection, spray or ointment while you’re conscious. It’s used for procedures such as stitches. Local anesthesia is relatively safe, causing few reactions or risks. Injection sites can occasionally become infected.


Sedation, also known as twilight, puts you in a sleepy state that reduces discomfort and anxiety. During sedation, general anesthesia drugs are given in lower doses so you can respond and move with assistance, such as sitting up during reconstructive surgery. Side effects are similar to general anesthesia but typically less common and severe. Recovery time is a lot faster, too.

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