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What is anaesthesia?

The word anaesthesia means loss of sensation.

  • Anaesthesia stops you feeling pain and other sensations.
  • Not all anaesthesia makes you unconscious. Drugs that cause anaesthesia work by blocking the signals that pass along your nerves to your brain. When the drugs wear off, you start to feel normal sensations again, including pain.
  • There are several types of anaesthetic, including local, regional and general.

Local anaesthesia

A local anaesthetic numbs a small part of your body. It is used when the nerves can easily be reached by drops, sprays, ointments or injections. You stay awake, but free from pain.

Regional anaesthesia (blocks)

Regional anaesthesia is when local anaesthetic drugs are injected near to a bundle of nerves which carry signals from a larger area of the body to the brain.

The most common regional anaesthetics (or blocks) are spinal and epidural anaesthetics. These can be used for operations on the lower body, such as a caesarean section or hip replacement. You stay conscious but free from pain. However, sedative (sleepy-making) drugs can also be given to ensure you are calm and relaxed during the operation.

General anaesthesia

General anaesthesia is a state of controlled unconsciousness during which you feel nothing. Some operations can only be done with a general anaesthetic. Anaesthetic drugs are injected into a vein, or anaesthetic gases are breathed into the lungs. They stop the brain recognising messages coming from the nerves in the body. As the anaesthetic drugs wear off, consciousness will return.

These three types of anaesthetic can be used on their own or with another type to give the best and safest anaesthetic for each patient.

What does my anaesthetist do?

Your anaesthetist will:

  • Assess your health and discuss with you which type of anaesthetics are suitable for your surgery. They will then agree with you a plan for your anaesthetic.
  • Give you the anaesthetic and keep you safe during surgery. Your anaesthetist stays with you all the way through your operation. They will use modern monitoring equipment to assess your condition all the time during your operation.  They will give you the drugs and fluids you need to keep you safe and well.
  • Plan your pain relief to make you as comfortable and nausea free as possible in the recovery room after your surgery.
  • If you have had a long and complex operation, or are unwell, they may take you to the intensive or high dependency care unit after your operation. This will mean you can be given more specific treatment and care that can be given on the normal wards.

Where can I find out more?

You can find out more about anaesthesia by reading the booklet Anaesthesia explained.

This website includes text taken from the Royal College of Anaesthetists’ (RCoA) website but the RCoA has not reviewed this as a whole.