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General Anesthesia

(Anesthesia, General)



General anesthesia is the use of medications to put the entire body to sleep. It puts you into a state of unconsciousness. During this time, the brain cannot feel any pain.

Doctors trained in anesthesia carefully balance the amount of medication needed by keeping an eye on vital signs.


Reasons for Procedure    TOP

General anesthesia is used for a surgery or a procedure that would make you uncomfortable if you were awake. The medications will help to:

  • Prevent pain
  • Relax the muscles
  • Helps manage certain bodily reflexes
  • Prevent awareness of what is happening

Possible Complications    TOP

Every precaution is used to prevent complications. Often, medications are given in advance to prevent certain problems, such as nausea and vomiting. Even so, complications may occur. These may 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—a rare complication where the patient becomes aware during the surgery
  • Stroke
  • Heart attack

Certain factors can increase your risk of complications. Before your procedure, talk to your doctor about ways to manage factors such as:

  • Smoking
  • Drinking alcohol
  • Chronic disease such as diabetes or obesity

What to Expect    TOP

Prior to Procedure

You will meet with an anesthesiologist before surgery and will be asked about:

  • Your health history and your family's health history—Tell your doctor if you have had anesthesia before and your reaction to it. Tell your doctor about your family's history with anesthesia.
  • Medications that you take, including herbs and supplements—These can have an effect on how the anesthesia works.

Before the procedure:

  • You will need to fast the night before surgery.
  • You may need to take certain medications in the morning before surgery.

Description of the Procedure

General anesthesia is broken down into three phases:

  • Induction phase—Medications will be given that result in the loss of consciousness. These will be given through an IV or through gas into the lungs. A breathing tube will be placed down your windpipe. This will be attached to a machine that helps you continue to breathe normally.
  • Middle or maintenance phase—Medications will be given based on your responses. They will help to keep you asleep or regulate your body functions.
  • Recovery or emergence phase—The doctor will slowly reverse the anesthesia. New medications will allow you to wake up. When you are starting to awaken and are breathing on your own, the breathing tube will be removed.

Endotracheal Intubation

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Immediately After Procedure    TOP

As you wake up, you will be watched closely for any problems. Any pain and discomfort caused by the surgery itself can be managed with medications.

How Long Will It Take?    TOP

The length of time anesthesia is needed will depend on the type of surgery.

How Much Will It Hurt?    TOP

General anesthesia numbs all pain. Since you are asleep, your brain will not sense any pain signals.

Average Hospital Stay    TOP

How long you spend in the hospital depends on:

  • Type of surgery
  • Your reaction to the surgery and anesthesia

Post-procedure Care    TOP

When you have recovered from anesthesia, you will be sent to a hospital room or home. For the first 24 hours or longer, avoid doing activities that require your attention, such as driving.

Preventing Infection

During your stay, the hospital staff will take steps to reduce your chance of infection such as:

  • Washing their hands
  • Wearing gloves or masks
  • Keeping your incisions covered

There are also steps you can take to reduce your chance of infection such as:

  • Washing your hands often and reminding your healthcare providers to do the same
  • Reminding your healthcare providers to wear gloves or masks
  • Not allowing others to touch your incision

Call Your Doctor    TOP

It is important for you to monitor your recovery after you leave the hospital. Alert your doctor to any problems right away. If any of the following occur, call your doctor:

  • 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.


American Association of Nurse Anesthetists

American Society of Anesthesiologists


Canadian Anesthesiologists' Society

Health Canada


Anesthesia—what to expect. Kids Health—Nemours Foundation website. Available at:
...(Click grey area to select URL)
Updated September 2015. Accessed October 2, 2017.

General anesthesia. American Pregnancy Association website. Available at:
...(Click grey area to select URL)
Updated August 2015. Accessed October 2, 2017.

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 September 2018 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Marcin Chwistek, MD
Last Updated: 2/7/2018

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