General anesthesia puts the entire body to sleep by giving medication. It is often used during emergency surgery. It is also commonly used if a procedure would make you uncomfortable if you were awake.
Doctors trained in anesthesia (anesthesiologists) carefully balance the amount of anesthesia medications given by closely monitoring the body’s functions. Medications are used to:
- Prevent pain
- Relax the muscles
- Regulate body functions
This is used so that surgery can be done without you:
- Being aware of it
- Feeling any pain
Every precaution is used to prevent complications. Often, medications are given in advance to prevent certain problems, such as nausea and vomiting. Even so, complications may occur and include:
- Allergic reaction to anesthetic used
- Nerve damage or skin breakdown from positioning on the operating table
- Sore throat
or damage to throat, teeth, or vocal cords
Problems from the procedure are rare, but all procedures have some risk. Your doctor will review potential problems, like:
- Lung infections
- Heart attack
- Anesthesia awareness—a rare complication where the patient becomes aware during the surgery
Before your procedure, talk to your doctor about ways to manage factors that may increase your risk of complications such as:
Unless you are having emergency surgery, you will meet with an anesthesiologist before surgery and will be asked about:
- Your health history and your family's health history—Tell your doctor if you have had anesthesia before and your reaction to it. Tell your doctor about your family's history with anesthesia.
Medications that you take, including
herbs and supplements
—These can have an effect on how the anesthesia works.
Before the procedure:
- Your height and weight will be taken.
- You will need to fast the night before surgery.
- You may need to take certain medications in the morning before surgery.
General anesthesia is broken down into three phases:
- Induction phase—Medications will be given that result in the loss of consciousness. These will be given through an IV or through gas into the lungs. A breathing tube will be placed down your windpipe. This will be attached to a machine that helps you continue to breathe normally.
- Middle or maintenance phase—Medications will be given based on your responses. These may keep you asleep or regulate your body functions.
- Recovery or emergence
phase—This will slowly reverse the anesthesia. The medications given will allow you to wake up. When you are starting to awaken and are breathing on your own, the breathing tube will be removed.
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As you wake up, you will be closely monitored. Any pain and discomfort after the procedure can be managed with medications.
This procedure takes as long as needed, depending on the surgery.
General anesthesia numbs all pain. Since you are asleep, your brain will not sense any pain signals.
How long you spend in the hospital depends on:
- Type of surgery
- Your reaction to the surgery and anesthesia
When you have recovered from anesthesia, you will be sent to a hospital room or home. For the first 24 hours or longer, avoid doing activities that require your attention, such as driving.
During your stay, the hospital staff will take steps to reduce your chance of infection, such as:
- Washing their hands
- Wearing gloves or masks
- Keeping your incisions covered
There are also steps you can take to reduce your chance of infection, such as:
- Washing your hands often and reminding your healthcare providers to do the same
- Reminding your healthcare providers to wear gloves or masks
- Not allowing others to touch your incision
After you leave the hospital, call your doctor if any of the following occurs:
- Signs of infection, including fever and chills
- Nausea and/or vomiting that you cannot control with the medications you were given after surgery, or which last for more than two days after leaving the hospital
- Cough, shortness of breath, or chest pain
- Lightheadedness or fainting
If you think you have an emergency, call for emergency medical services right away.
Anesthesia—what to expect. Kids Health—Nemours Foundation website. Available at: http://kidshealth.org/teen/your_body/medical_care/anesthesia.html. Updated April 2012. Accessed September 29, 2014.
General anesthesia. American Pregnancy Association website. Available at: http://americanpregnancy.org/labor-and-birth/general-anesthesia/. Updated January 2014. Accessed September 29, 2014.
Pollard R, Coyle J, Gilbert R, Beck J. Intraoperative awareness in a regional medical system: A review of 3 years' data.
Sackel DJ. Anesthesia awareness: an analysis of its incidence, the risk factors involved, and prevention.
Journal of Clinical Anesthesia.
Last reviewed August 2014 by Marcin Chwistek, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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