Complete unconsciousness induced by medication.

General anesthesia involves inducing a state of controlled unconsciousness. The administration of specific medications during the procedure ensures that you are asleep and unaware of the surgical process, allowing for a pain-free experience.

General anesthesia is typically employed for surgical interventions where it is deemed safer or more comfortable for you to be completely unconscious. This is especially true for lengthy procedures or those that would typically cause significant pain.

The exact mechanisms of general anesthesia remain unclear; however, it is known that all anesthetics effectively prevent the transmission of nerve signals to the brain, resulting in a lack of sensation.

The Administration of General Anesthetics

Prior to undergoing surgery, you will meet with an anaesthetist, a specialized doctor, to discuss the most suitable type of anesthesia for you. This preoperative assessment includes the following:

  • An in-depth discussion regarding the various types of anesthesia options available to you
  • A comprehensive explanation of the potential risks associated with anesthesia
  • The establishment of a personalized plan for your anesthesia and subsequent pain management

The anaesthetist will thoroughly review your medical history, inquire about any previous complications with anesthesia in your family, and assess your overall health and lifestyle habits. This includes discussing whether you have any allergies, smoking or alcohol consumption habits, and current medication usage.

The anaesthetist will be available to address any inquiries or concerns you may have. It is crucial to communicate any uncertainties or apprehensions you may be experiencing. You will also receive detailed instructions regarding pre-operative preparations, such as whether you should refrain from eating or drinking leading up to the procedure.

Preparations and Procedure

Just before your surgery, you will be taken to a designated space where the anaesthetist will administer the general anesthesia. This can be done in two ways:

  • A liquid infusion through a cannula inserted into a vein, typically on the back of your hand
  • Inhalation of an anesthetic gas via a mask

The effects of the anesthesia will rapidly manifest. You may initially experience a sense of dizziness before entering an unconscious state within approximately a minute.

Throughout the procedure, the anaesthetist will continuously monitor and regulate the administration of anesthesia, ensuring that you remain in a controlled state of unconsciousness. Additionally, pain-relief medications may be conveyed through intravenous injections to guarantee your comfort upon awakening.


Once your surgery is complete, the anaesthetist will discontinue the anesthesia, allowing you to gradually regain consciousness. Initially, you will be transferred to a recovery room, and eventually, you will be transferred to a ward.

The duration of your hospital stay following the operation will depend on your individual circumstances. Typically, patients need to remain in the hospital for a few hours to a few days post-surgery.

It is essential to note that the effects of general anesthesia may affect your memory, concentration, and reflexes for a period of one to two days. Therefore, it is recommended that a responsible adult accompany you for at least 24 hours following your surgery, particularly if you are allowed to return home. Additionally, refraining from activities such as driving, alcohol consumption, and signing legal documents for 24 to 48 hours post-anesthesia is advised.

Possible Side Effects

General anesthesia may result in some common side effects, which your anaesthetist will discuss with you before the surgery. These side effects are typically temporary and occur immediately after the procedure. They may include:

  • Feelings of nausea or vomiting, which typically subside within a day but may persist for longer in some cases
  • Episodes of shivering and feeling cold, lasting anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours
  • Temporary confusion or memory loss, more commonly seen in older individuals or those with pre-existing memory conditions
  • Difficulties in urination
  • Episodes of dizziness, for which fluids will be provided
  • Development of bruising and tenderness at the injection or drip site, often healing on its own without any treatment
  • An onset of a sore throat due to the insertion of a tube into the mouth or throat during the procedure, resulting in temporary discomfort
  • Possible minor cuts to the lips or tongue or damage to teeth, which occurs in a small percentage of individuals and should be disclosed to the anaesthetist if any prior dental work has been performed

Complications and Risks

While general anesthesia carries the potential for more serious complications, it is important to note that such instances are exceptionally rare.

Potential significant complications and risks encompass:

  • a severe allergic reaction to the anesthesia (anaphylaxis)
  • regaining consciousness during the surgical procedure (unintentional awareness), although the administration of anesthesia will be meticulously monitored to minimize the occurrence of such an event
  • fatality – an exceedingly rare outcome

Adverse issues are more probable if you are undergoing major or emergency surgery, have additional medical conditions, engage in smoking, or have excess weight.

Your anesthesiologist will thoroughly discuss the risks with you prior to the operation. It is advisable to cease smoking or consuming alcohol in the weeks preceding the surgery since doing so will decrease the likelihood of developing complications.

You may also receive advice to shed excess weight and enhance your physical activity levels in the weeks prior to the surgery, if feasible. Engaging in these actions could diminish potential risks or complications.

In most instances, the advantages of experiencing painlessness throughout the procedure outweigh the risks.

Alternative forms of anesthesia

In addition to general anesthesia, various other forms of anesthesia are available, suited for specific procedures. These include:

  • local anesthesia
  • epidural anesthesia
  • spinal anesthesia
  • nerve blocks

Page last reviewed: 21 June 2021 Next review due: 21 June 2024

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