What is general anesthesia?

People think of general anesthesia as "going to sleep." It is carefully controlled unconsciousness, and affects the whole body. The drugs used to create a state of general anesthesia are potent, and affect all of the body's organs at once. They are administered through intravenous (IV) or gas inhalation so they work quickly and smoothly. The anesthesiologist monitors your vital signs constantly to avoid side effects of the drugs.

How do I receive general anesthesia? Will it hurt?

You will be awake, yet relaxed, when you enter the operating room. Often you will help move yourself and lie down on the operating room bed. The anesthesiologist and nursing staff will work to place you in a position where you are comfortable, and that allows the anesthesiologist to have access to your head and neck. You will have monitors placed on your body to record vital signs such as blood pressure, pulse, heart rhythm and oxygen level. The blood pressure cuff will squeeze your arm tightly at first, until it senses your body's usual pressure level. You may hear the "beep" of your heart rate on the monitor in the background.

The anesthesiologist will ask you to breathe deeply, or breathe into a mask with oxygen. During this time s/he is giving you a combination of drugs through the IV tubing. You may feel these drugs pass through the IV and up your body as a brief stinging sensation. The anesthesiologist may press the breathing mask firmly on your face as you become more relaxed; just keep breathing deeply. As the drugs take full effect, you will become unconscious.

During the operation, the anesthesiologist will use a combination of IV and inhaled gas medications to keep you anesthetized. The anesthesiologist monitors and adjusts drug dosages constantly to maintain the desired effect. The anesthesiologist wants to maintain the level of anesthesia only as long as necessary, and then awaken you as soon as it is safe.

Will I feel anything while I am under general anesthesia?

No, you do not feel pain under general anesthesia. The drugs used for general anesthesia depress the parts of the central nervous system that control pain awareness.

Will I wake up during the surgery?

No, when you are under general anesthesia you remain unconscious. The anesthesiologist is constantly monitoring your level of anesthesia and maintaining it to keep you safe, asleep and pain free.

Will I remember anything while I am under general anesthesia?

No, patients report that they do not remember anything about their experience in the operating room. One of the effects of anesthesia drugs is amnesia, or the inability to remember events. The next day, you may recall only coming into the hospital before surgery and waking up after the operation. Only in extremely rare circumstances can someone recall events that happened during their operation.

In some instances, and usually if you are already in poor health, the anesthesiologist may be required to keep you less deeply unconscious under anesthesia. The amnesia effect is reduced, but this is for your safety.

When I receive general anesthesia, will I have a tube put in my throat?

Yes, in most circumstances, you will. General anesthesia drugs relax the natural reflexes that control your breathing, coughing and swallowing. The breathing tube (endotracheal tube) is placed down your throat and windpipe (trachea) after you are unconscious. It ensures that you have a safe passageway for your lungs to receive oxygen and anesthesia medications during your operation. If circumstances permit, the anesthesiologist may use a different breathing tube (called an LMA, or laryngeal mask airway) that does not enter the trachea but still ensures a safe passageway for you to breathe.

The breathing tube is usually removed just as you are waking up. You may have no memory of the tube or of feeling any pain as it was placed, but your throat may feel sore or hoarse for a short time as you recover.

For some large or complex operations, or if you are already in poor health, the surgeon and anesthesiologist may decide that the breathing tube must remain in place as you recover. Although the tube is not comfortable, please remember that it helps you breathe safely.

What are the side effects of general anesthesia?

The usual side effects you may experience after receiving general anesthesia include nausea, a sore throat, or feeling weak and tired. These effects should pass quickly as you recover from surgery.

There can be several other side effects from general anesthesia, and what you experience can depend on: your age and gender, general health, surgical procedure, body position during surgery, and type and amount of anesthesia drugs used. Your anesthesiologist is prepared to discuss these issues with you before your surgery.

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