What is anesthesia?

Anesthesia is a medical treatment that keeps you from feeling pain during procedures or surgery. The medications used to block pain are called anesthetics. Different types of anesthesia work in different ways. Some anesthetic medications numb certain parts of the body, while other medications numb the brain, to induce a sleep through more invasive surgical procedures, like those within the head, chest, or abdomen.

How does anesthesia work?

Anesthesia temporarily blocks sensory/pain signals from nerves to the centers in the brain. Your peripheral nerves connect the spinal cord to the rest of your body.

Who performs anesthesia?

If you’re having a relatively simple procedure like a tooth extraction that requires numbing a small area, the person performing your procedure can administer the local anesthetic. For more complex and invasive procedures, your anesthetic will be administered by a physician anesthesiologist. This medical doctor manages your pain before, during and after surgery. In addition to your physician anesthesiologist, your anesthesia team can be comprised of physicians in training (fellows or residents), a certified registered nurse anesthetist (CRNA), or a certified anesthesiologist assistant (CAA).

What are the types of anesthesia?

The anesthesia your healthcare provider uses depends on the type and scope of the procedure. Options include:

  • Local anesthesia: This treatment numbs a small section of the body. Examples of procedures in which local anesthesia could be used include cataract surgery, a dental procedure or skin biopsy. You’re awake during the procedure.
  • Regional anesthesia: Regional anesthesia blocks pain in a larger part of your body, such as a limb or everything below your chest. You are can be conscious during the procedure, or have sedation in addition to the regional anesthetic. Examples include an epidural to ease the pain of childbirth or during a cesarean section (C-section), a spinal for hip or knee surgery, or an arm block for hand surgery.
  • General anesthesia: This treatment makes you unconscious and insensitive to pain or other stimuli. General anesthesia is used for more invasive surgical procedures, or procedures of the head, chest, or abdomen.
  • Sedation: Sedation relaxes you to the point where you will have a more natural sleep, but can be easily aroused or awakened. Light sedation can be prescribed by the person performing your procedure, or together with a regular nurse, if they both have training to provide moderate sedation. Examples of procedures performed with light or moderate sedation include cardiac catheterization and some colonoscopies. Deep sedation is provided by an anesthesia professional because your breathing may be affected with the stronger anesthetic medications, but you will be more asleep than with light or moderate sedation. Although you won’t be completely unconscious, you are not as likely to remember the procedure.

How is anesthesia administered?

Depending on the procedure and type of anesthesia needed, your healthcare provider may deliver the anesthesia via:

  • Inhaled gas.
  • Injection, including shots or intravenously (IV).
  • Topical (applied to skin or eyes) liquid, spray or patch.

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 09/30/2020.

References

  • American Association of Nurse Anesthetists. All About Anesthesia. Accessed 9/29/2020.
  • American Society of Anesthesiologists. Anesthesia 101. Accessed 9/29/2020.
  • National Institute of General Medical Sciences. Anesthesia. Accessed 9/29/2020.

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