General anesthesia is medicine used to put the entire body to sleep. It blocks the brain from feeling pain and keeps you unconscious. General anesthesia is given by doctors trained in anesthesia. They carefully balance the amount of medicine that is needed.
Reasons for Procedure
General anesthesia is used for a surgery or a procedure that would be uncomfortable if you were awake. The medicine will help to:
- Prevent pain
- Relax the muscles
- Stop certain reflexes
- Prevent awareness of what is happening
Many steps are taken to prevent problems. Possible risks include:
- Allergic reaction to anesthetic used
- Nerve damage or skin breakdown from positioning on the operating table
- Sore throat
or damage to throat, teeth, or vocal cords
- Lung infections
- Anesthesia awareness—where the patient becomes aware during the surgery, which is very rare
- Heart attack
Things that can increase the risk of problems are history of:
What to Expect
Prior to Procedure
You will meet with a specialist before surgery. They will ask about overall health and any previous reaction to anesthesia. It is also important they know about any medicine that you are taking.
Food and drink may need to be avoided starting the night before the surgery.
Description of the Procedure
Some medicine may be given before anesthesia. It can help to prevent problems, such as nausea and vomiting. General anesthesia is broken down into 3 phases:
- First phase—Medicine will be given through an IV or as gas through a mask. It will lead to loss of consciousness. A breathing tube will be placed down your windpipe. It will support your airway during surgery. A machine may also help you breathe.
- Middle phase—Medicine will be given in this phase based on your response. Adjustments will be made to keep you asleep and keep breathing and heart rate where it should be.
- Recovery phase—The anesthesia will be slowly reversed. New medicine will allow you to wake up. The breathing tube will be removed when you start to wake.
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Immediately After Procedure
The care team will watch closely for any problems.
How Long Will It Take?
The time will depend on the type of surgery.
How Much Will It Hurt?
General anesthesia numbs all pain. The brain will not sense any pain signals.
Average Hospital Stay
The hospital stay will depend on the surgery. A poor reaction to anesthesia may require a longer stay as well.
Anesthesia can have some effects for 24 hours or longer. It may include fatigue or nausea. Major decisions or dangerous activity should be avoided.
Call Your Doctor
It is important for you to monitor your recovery after you leave the hospital. Alert your doctor to any problems right away. Call your doctor if there are:
- Signs of infection, including fever and chills
- Persistent nausea or vomiting
- Cough, shortness of breath, or chest pain
- Lightheadedness or fainting
If you think you have an emergency, call for emergency medical services right away.
Anesthesia—what to expect. Kids Health—Nemours Foundation website. Available at: http://kidshealth.org/en/teens/anesthesia.html. Accessed February 13, 2021.
General anesthesia. American Pregnancy Association website. Available at: http://americanpregnancy.org/labor-and-birth/general-anesthesia. Accessed February 13, 2021.
Pollard R, Coyle J, Gilbert R, Beck J. Intraoperative awareness in a regional medical system: A review of 3 years' data. Anesthesiology. 2007;106(2)269-274.
Sackel DJ. Anesthesia awareness: an analysis of its incidence, the risk factors involved, and prevention. J Clin Anesth. 2006;18(7):483-485.
Last reviewed June 2021 by
EBSCO Medical Review Board
Marcin Chwistek, MD
Last Updated: 6/3/2021