How Does Anesthesia Work?

We rely on anesthesia to keep patients pain-free when undergoing surgery or other medical procedures, but how exactly does it work? And what should you do if you weren’t given a correct administration of anesthesia?


In many ways, anesthesia is an exact science, but it’s also a complicated one. The exact type and amount of anesthesia a person receives will be based on a patient’s age, weight, personal history, and dozens of other factors; an anesthesiologist is a dedicated professional to make sure these variables are considered and that the anesthesia is delivered correctly. Still, anesthesia errors are possible, and could result in injury or death.

General vs. Local Anesthesia

First, you should understand that the term “anesthesia” could refer to one of several different products. General anesthesia, for example, is designed for major operations, like spinal surgery or open-heart surgery. This product will cause you to lose consciousness for a specific period of time, allowing the operation to be performed uninterrupted and without pain.

“Local anesthesia,” by contrast, is used for minimally invasive and simple procedures, like getting stitches in a cut on your finger. It’s usually injected directly, and is designed to numb a small area of the body. You remain alert and awake during these types of procedures. You may also receive “regional anesthesia,” which works like local anesthesia, but numbs a bigger area of the body; it’s often used during childbirth.

How General Anesthesia Works

General anesthesia is the more complicated type of anesthesia, due to its numerous effects and sensitivity to misuse. Essentially, general anesthesia works by interrupting the nerve signals in your brain and body, which would otherwise be responsible for sending pain signals and forming memories.

Before and during surgery, you’ll usually be given anesthesia through an IV line in your arm or hand. This steady supply will make sure you’re adequately unconscious during the procedure. You may also be given a mask, which allows you to breathe in anesthetic gas. Most people fall asleep within a minute or two. The surgical procedure begins once you’re fully unconscious.

During the procedure, the anesthesiologist (or other anesthesia professional) will continuously monitor your bodily functions, to make sure you’re responding well and that you remain under for the duration of the procedure. For example,  they’ll actively observe your breathing patterns, your core temperature, your heart rate, your blood pressure, your fluid levels, and your blood oxygen levels. If there are any disruptions in these vital levels, your medical team will be responsible for restoring them. These people are also responsible for making sure you remain unconscious and pain-free during the entire procedure.

Once the procedure is over, the supply of anesthesia will be halted, and you’ll enter a recovery area. Over the course of a few hours, you’ll gradually wake up. Medical professionals should be on standby to make sure you’re not in any pain, and that you have everything you need to begin recovery.

Common Risks and Side Effects

General anesthesia is considered safe for the vast majority of the population. Most people experience a handful of common side effects and ongoing effects of anesthesia after surgery, but are nothing to worry about. These include things like:

  • Nausea
  • Dry mouth
  • Sore throat
  • Sleepiness and grogginess
  • Itching
  • Muscle pain
  • Shivering
  • Confusion or disorientation

You’ll want to consult with a doctor if you experience any of these symptoms for more than a few days.

Anesthesia Errors and More Serious Side Effects

If anesthesia is administered improperly, it may result in more serious side effects. In some cases, this can lead to heart attack or stroke during the procedure. In rare cases, it can result in death. Improper anesthesia use can also lead to injuries, including trauma to the teeth, tongue, or vocal cords, nerve damage, or infections. There’s also a chance you could wake up during surgery, and/or feel extreme pain during the procedure.

In most cases, these extreme side effects and reactions are attributable to human error. Your anesthesiologist may not have taken all your personal factors into account when calculating the correct level of anesthesia to administer. They may not have appropriately monitored your vital signs during the procedure. Or they may have mixed up your personal information with that of another patient. If this happens, you’ll have legal recourse; talk to a medical malpractice lawyer about your case.

Learning More About General Anesthesia

This article merely covers the basics of anesthesia, including what you can expect from a procedure involving general anesthesia. If you’re concerned about your procedure, or if you want to learn more information about this product, ask your doctor or medical professional, and don’t be afraid to ask questions. It’s your right as a patient to be informed.

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