by Eugenie Heitmiller, Ph.D.
If you are faced with the possibility of needing surgery in the future, chances are you will
some type of anesthesia to go along with it. There are many different types of
Which one you will need depends on a variety of factors such as the type of surgery you
having and your state of health. Some surgical procedures require only an injection of
anesthesia into the incision area. Other procedures cannot be performed unless you are
completely anesthetized -- unconscious and unaware of pain. Your anesthesiologist
you which type of anesthesia you need.
In this edition of How Stuff Works, we will look at the many types of anesthesia so that
can understand what it is, how it works, and how the anesthesiologist determines which
of anesthesia to use for your particular situation. By addressing this topic, we hope that
will have a better understanding of what happens to you while you're anesthetized and
perhaps make it a little less mysterious.
Anesthesia is divided into four basic categories:
Each type of anesthesia has an effect on a part of the nervous
system, which results in a depression or numbing of nerve
pathways. General anesthesia affects the brain cells, which
causes you to lose consciousness. Regional anesthesia has an
effect on a large bundle of nerves to a particular area of the
body, which results in losing sensation to that area without
affecting your level of consciousness. Local anesthesia causes
you to lose sensation in a very specific area.
Some of the drugs that produce general anesthesia in large
Consciousness is being clearly
aware of yourself and your
Unconsciousness is when you
are completely or partially
unaware of yourself and your
environment, or you don't
respond to sensory stimuli.
Conscious sedation is caused
administers depressant drugs
and/or analgesics in addition to
anesthesia during surgery.
Consciousness is depressed
and you may fall asleep, but are not unconscious.
Sleep is a state of reduced
metabolism, and little activity of
the skeletal muscles. Strong
stimuli such as a loud noise,
bright light or shaking can
arouse the sleeper.
doses can be used to produce sedation, or "twilight sleep" in
lower doses. Sedation can be given in many ways. A common
example of an anesthetic gas that is used for sedation is nitrous
oxide or laughing gas.
If you are scheduled to have surgery, you may be told not to eat
anything for eight hours. It is very important that you follow
whatever instructions you are given for not eating or drinking
anything prior to surgery. Why? Because when you are given
anesthesia, you lose the ability to protect your lungs from inhaling something you're not
supposed to inhale. When you are awake, you can usually swallow saliva and food
choking because part of the swallowing mechanism involves a reflex that results in
the opening into the lungs. When you are anesthetized, you lose that reflex. So, if you
any solids or liquids in your stomach, they could come up into your mouth and be
your lungs. The result could be very serious lung damage.
General anesthetics produce an unconscious state. In this state a person is:
1. unaware of what is happening
4. free from any memory of the period of time during which he or she is anesthetized
It is not completely clear exactly how general anesthetics work at a cellular level, but it
speculated that general anesthetics affect the spinal cord (resulting in immobility), the
reticular activating system (resulting in unconsciousness) and the cerebral cortex (seen
as changes in electrical activity on an electroencephalogram).
General anesthesia can be administered as an inhaled gas or as an injected liquid.
several drugs and gases that can be combined or used alone to produce general
The potency of a given anesthetic is measured as minimum alveolar concentration
This term describes the potency of anesthetic gases. (Aveolar is the area in the lung
gases enter and exit the bloodstream via the capillary system). Technically, MAC is the
alveolar partial pressure of a gas at which 50 percent of humans will not move to a
stimulus (e.g. skin incision). Injected liquid anesthetics have a "MAC equivalent" which
blood concentration of the liquid anesthetic that provides the same effect. Using MAC
guideline, the amount of anesthetic given to a patient depends on that particular
When anesthetics reach the bloodstream, the drugs that affect the brain pass through
blood vessels and organs so they are often affected too. Therefore, patients must be
monitored. The anesthesiologist continuously monitors the patient's heart rate, heart
blood pressure, respiratory rate, and oxygen saturation. Some patients may have even
extensive monitoring depending on their health and which type of procedure or surgery
Most adults are first anesthetized with liquid intravenous anesthetics followed by
gases after they are asleep. Children, however, may not like having an injection or
intravenous catheter placed in them while they are awake. Therefore, they often breathe
themselves to sleep with anesthetic gases given through a mask.
Many adults may remember having ether for their anesthetic when they were young.
a flammable anesthetic that is no longer used in the United States. Today, the
used inhaled anesthetics are nitrous oxide (also known as laughing gas), sevoflurane,
desflurane, isoflurane and halothane.
Why do we have so many different kinds of gases? Because each gas has its own
properties. For example, sevoflurane and halothane are easy to inhale while desflurane
very irritating to inhale and has a shorter duration of action. If you need to breathe
sleep, halothane or sevoflurane would be easiest to inhale. If a very short-acting
needed, the anesthesiologist can switch to desflurane after you fall asleep. Nitrous
easy to inhale, but when used alone is not potent enough to be a complete general
anesthetic. However, it can be used alone for sedation, or combined with one of the
inhaled anesthetics or injected liquid anesthetics for general anesthesia.
These gases have different effects on other organs as well. For example, halothane
cause the heart rate to slow down and the blood pressure to decrease while desflurane
cause the heart rate to speed up and the blood pressure to increase. How do these
anesthetics reach the brain? When an anesthetic gas is inhaled into the lungs, the blood
travels through the lungs carries the anesthetic gas to central nervous system cells. The
at which the bloodstream takes up the anesthetic is dependent on many factors
concentration of the inspired gas, the rate of flow of the gas from the anesthesia
solubility of the gas in blood, the rate and depth of breathing, and the amount of blood
heart pumps each minute in the person breathing the gas.
An important property of anesthetics is reversibility. When the surgery is over, the
anesthesiologist wants to shut off the anesthetic and have the patient wake up from the
anesthetic -induced sleep. Once the anesthetic gas is turned off, the blood stream
gas back to the lungs where it is eliminated. The more soluble the gas is in blood, the
takes to eliminate. Nitrous oxide and desflurane are the shortest-acting anesthetic
because they are the least soluble in blood.
A liquid anesthetic drug is delivered to the brain by injecting it directly into the
usually through an intravenous catheter. Examples of injected drugs are barbiturates,
propofol, ketamine, and etomidate, as well as larger doses of narcotics (such as
and benzodiazepines (Valium-like drugs). These drugs quickly reach the brain and
effect is dependent on several factors including the volume in which the drug is
the body, the fat-solubility of the drug, and how quickly the body eliminates the drug.
A commonly used injected barbiturate anesthetic is sodium thiopental, also known as
Pentothal. This drug is fat-soluble and acts very quickly. If you receive sodium
then you are asked to count backward from 100 after the drug is injected, you probably
remember counting past 95. Some injected anesthetics are used in low doses for
small dose of a narcotic or a benzodiazepine like Valium or Versed can significantly
anxiety. These drugs are used in these doses either as a premedication prior to general
anesthesia or as "twilight sleep" or sedation when used in conjunction with local or
Regional anesthesia is so named because a "region" of the body is anesthetized
making the person unconscious. One example of this is spinal anesthesia, which is
on woman during childbirth. A local anesthetic is injected into the spinal fluid and
loss of sensation of the lower body. Spinal anesthesia can be used for surgery on the
lower abdomen (below the bellybutton).
Epidural anesthesia is similar to spinal anesthesia in that a patient loses sensation in
and lower abdomen, but instead of injecting the local anesthetic into the spinal fluid, the
anesthetic is injected into a space outside the spinal canal called the epidural space. A
tube or catheter can be placed into this space and a local anesthetic can be infused
through the tube for hours, days, or even weeks. This type of anesthesia can be used
surgery with larger doses of anesthetic, or for chronic pain relief with lower doses of
anesthetic. Regional anesthesia techniques can be used to block very specific areas
one foot, one leg, one arm, or one side of the neck. In these cases, a smaller group of
is blocked by injection of the local anesthetic into a specific area. For spinals and
narcotic painkillers such as morphine and fentanyl can be used in addition to a local
Local anesthesia involves numbing a small area by injecting a local anesthetic under
just where an incision is to be made. When used alone, this type of anesthesia has the
number of risks. Local anesthetics are thought to block nerve impulses by decreasing
permeability of nerve membranes to sodium ions. There are many different local
that differ in absorption, toxicity, and duration of action.
One of the most commonly used local anesthetics is lidocaine (Xylocaine). Lidocaine
administered as an injection or placed topically on mucous membranes. Another topical
anesthetic is cocaine. Cocaine is primarily used to anesthetize the nasal passages for
procedures. A topical anesthetic that is gaining popularity for anesthetizing the skin prior
painful procedures, such as injections, is known as ectatic mixture of local
(EMLA) cream which contains lidocaine and prilocaine. This white cream is placed on
and then covered with an occlusive dressing for approximately one hour to obtain a
numbing effect. In addition, EMLA can be used to numb the skin prior to giving
pulling superficial splinters.
Some of the drugs that produce general anesthesia in large doses can be used to
sedation or "twilight sleep" in lower doses. Sedation can be given in many ways. A
example of an anesthetic gas that is used for sedation is nitrous oxide or laughing gas.
sedating drugs are usually given by injection but some can also be given by mouth.
and Versed are examples of sedating drugs that can be given by injection or by mouth.
oral route is particularly useful for sedating children who do not like injections.
Children who refuse to drink medications may also receive sedation through the rectum
small, lubricated tube or via the nasal route by spraying it into the nose. Regional and
anesthesia can be combined with sedation to make patients more comfortable during a
procedure in which general anesthesia is not necessary, or when general anesthesia
too large a risk for the patient.
To become an anesthesiologist, a person must complete college, medical school, an
internship and a three -year anesthesiology residency (see How Becoming a Doctor
An anesthesiologist is a physician who specializes in anesthetic administration, pain
and the care of patients before, during, and after surgery. The anesthesiologist monitors
organ functions including heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, and blood-oxygen
Prior to the day of surgery, you may meet your anesthesiologist. Most of the time, you
on the day of surgery. Your anesthesiologist may ask several questions about your
history. This information is important in determining which type of anesthesia you should
receive. Your anesthesiologist can answer any questions you have about the side
caused by anesthesia. Children receive the same anesthetics for surgery as adults, but
doses of the injected anesthetics are determined by the child's weight.
My patients are often small children who are not happy about seeing a doctor. Their
or guardians are usually very anxious about the anesthesia. A large part of my job
surgery is explaining the anesthetic plan and reassuring the parents or guardians by
answering questions about what is about to happen to their child. Children may be given
sedative, midazolon, before they are anesthetized. This is often in the form of a
drink. After about 10 minutes, the children are smiling and don't mind coming to the
operating room with one of their parents or guardians. They usually don't remember it
In the operating room, the child receives the anesthetic either by breathing a gas
mask or by an injection. After the child is asleep, the parents or guardians leave and the
child's safety is in the anesthesiologist's hands.
While the child is anesthetized, blood pressure is closely monitored with a blood
cuff, the heart rate and rhythm with an electrocardiogram (also known as an EKG), the
child's breathing, temperature, and the saturation of oxygen in the blood with a special
machine called a pulse oximeter. These vital signs are used to help determine the depth
anesthesia. In addition, there is a monitor that can measure the depth of anesthesia
brain waves. However, the most important part of the monitoring is done by the
anesthesiologist watching the patient.
After the surgery, the patient goes to the recovery room for constant monitoring until he
awakens. Then the patient is ready to be discharged from the recovery room. The
assigns the patient to a hospital bed or discharges the patient if it is outpatient surgery.
Sometimes, the patient goes to an intensive care unit after surgery. Anesthesiologists,
specialize in intensive care, often take care of patients in the intensive care unit as well.
About the Author
Eugenie Heitmiller, M.D. is an associate professor of Anesthesia and Pediatrics at
Hopkins Medical School. She has been an anesthesiologist since 1982 and specializes
anesthesia for children. She finds anesthesiology an exciting and challenging field
the continuous development of new drugs, new types of operations, and equipment.
all, with each new patient comes a new possibility for making what is for most people a
difficult and frightening experience a little safer and easier.