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Anesthesia - What to Expect

If you're having any kind of procedure or surgery, you probably have plenty of questions about anesthesia — like how it's given and what it will be like.

What happens depends on the type of procedure you have and the kind of anesthesia to be used. The types of anesthesia are:

  • General: you would be "asleep"
  • Regional: one large area of the body is numbed
  • Local: one small area of the body is numbed

General and regional anesthesia are used in hospitals and surgery centers. These medicines are given to patients by specially trained doctors (anesthesiologists) or nurses (nurse anesthetists). Health care providers can give patients local anesthesia in doctors’ offices and clinics. Sometimes, a patient gets a combination of different types of anesthesia.

What Happens Before Anesthesia?

Before you gets any kind of anesthesia, you’ll meet with the doctor or nurse. To help them decide what kind of anesthesia to use, they’ll ask about your medical history, medicines, drug or alcohol use, and allergies. They will also ask if anyone in the family has ever had a problem with anesthesia. It’s important to answer these questions as thoroughly as possible.

The doctor or nurse will examine you and may order some tests (such as X-rays or blood or lab tests).

The doctor or nurse will tell you when to stop eating or drinking before getting the anesthesia. You also might need to stop taking medicines. It can be hard not to eat or drink when you want to, but it’s important to follow the instructions exactly. With some types of anesthesia, food or drink in a patient’s stomach could be inhaled into the lungs and cause serious problems. You should, though, drink clear fluids up until the cutoff time.

What Happens During Anesthesia?

What happens during anesthesia depends on what type is used:

General anesthesia: A patient who gets general anesthesia is completely unconscious (or "asleep"). They can’t feel any pain, are not aware of the surgery as it happens, and don’t remember anything from when they are “asleep.” Patients can get general anesthesia through an IV (into a vein) or inhale it through their nose and mouth. A tube is placed in their throat to help the person breathe while they are under general anesthesia. 

Regional anesthesia: This type of anesthesia may be injected near a cluster of nerves in the spine. This makes a large area of the body numb and unable to feel pain. Common types of regional anesthesia include epidurals (often used in childbirth), spinal blocks, and peripheral nerve blocks (when the medicine is injected neara nerve or group of nerves to block feelings of pain in a specific area of the body). The anesthesiologist will decide which type of regional technique is right for you.

Local anesthesia: Local anesthesia numbs a small part of the body (for example, a hand or patch of skin). It can be given as a shot, spray, or ointment. It may be used for dental work, stitches, or to lessen the pain of getting a needle.

No matter what type you get, you will be constantly checked to make sure you're comfortable and safe.

Before they give you anesthesia, doctors and nurses will work with you to ease any fears. Sometimes, a patient gets sedation before the IV is placed or anesthesia is given. This medicine, given by mouth or as a nasal spray, helps them relax and feel sleepy.

What Happens After Anesthesia?

You'll need time to recover after anesthesia. 

If you had local or regional anesthesia, the numb area will slowly start to feel again. You then may feel some discomfort in the area. Depending on what procedure was done and if you were sedated, you might be able to go home within a few hours.

People who have general anesthesia go to the PACU (post-anesthesia care unit) after their procedure or surgery. In the PACU, doctors and nurses watch patients very closely as they wake up. A parent (or caregiver) usually can you in the PACU. Expect to be sleepy for an hour or so. Some people feel sick to their stomach, irritable, or confused when waking up. They may have a dry throat from the breathing tube. 

After you're fully awake and any pain is controlled, you can leave the PACU. Some people go home that same day and others stay in the hospital.

Your doctor or nurse will talk to you and your parent before you go home. They will tell you when to follow up with your health care provider, what pain medicines you need (if any), and things to watch for.

Call your health care provider if you:

  • have bleeding, redness, or pus where the procedure was done 
  • have a fever higher than 101°F (38.3°C)
  • have pain that is not helped by the prescribed medicines or is severe
  • can't take fluids by mouth
  • are vomiting

What Else Should I Know?

Before the day of the operation, you may want to ask your doctor or surgeon these questions:

  • Can a parent be with me before surgery? If so, for how long?
  • Can a parent be with me while I get the anesthesia?
  • What kind of anesthesia will I get?
  • How will the anesthesia be given — with an injection, through an IV, or with a breathing mask or tube in the throat?
  • Will I be sedated before I get anesthesia?
  • How long will the surgery take?
  • Will I still have an IV in or be hooked up to any monitors or equipment after the surgery is over?
  • How long will it take me to fully wake up from general anesthesia or feel the area if local or regional anesthesia was used?
  • Will I feel pain and/or discomfort (such as nausea or vomiting) after surgery? If so, how long will it last and what can be done about it?
  • How soon after the surgery can I see my family?
  • How soon after the surgery can I go home?
  • How soon after the surgery can I eat, drink, go to school, or drive?

Before you leave the hospital, you'll get instructions about recovering at home and for a follow-up visit with the surgeon. Talk to the surgeon and/or the anesthesiologist about what to expect after the surgery and how you can stay as comfortable as possible.

Anesthesia is very safe. In today's hospitals and surgery centers, highly trained professionals use a wide variety of modern medications and extremely capable monitoring technology to ensure that people are stable and as comfortable as possible before, during, and after their procedure.

Reviewed by: Judith A. Jones, MD
Date Reviewed: Aug 1, 2022

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