What is a general anaesthetic?
A general anaesthetic is used to make you unconscious so you will not feel pain, move or be aware during surgery.
What are the benefits of a general anaesthetic?
General anaesthetics are used for larger operations. You are asleep so the surgeon can operate for longer or operate on different parts of the body at the same time. They can be given quickly and can be reversed. However, not everybody can have a general anaesthetic.
An alternative to a general anaesthetic is a local anaesthetic, which just numbs a small part of the body, or a regional anaesthetic, which numbs a specific area or region of the body.
The best anaesthetic for you depends on the procedure you are having and your individual circumstances. You can discuss this with your doctor or anaesthetist before surgery.
How is a general anaesthetic given?
You will usually meet with an anaesthetist before the surgery. That might be in the few days before your surgery, or it might be in the hour before surgery.
Your anaesthetist will ask you about your health and how you have dealt with anaesthetics in the past. They may also ask about the medicines you take, whether you have allergies and whether or not you smoke.
You should provide any medical information you may have from a previous anaesthetist.
Your anaesthetist may explain the surgery to you, along with what could possibly go wrong. They may ask you to sign a form, known as a consent form, which says you agree to the surgery and understand everything about it. If so, this is the time to ask all the questions you may have been wondering about.
Your anaesthetist may also arrange tests to prepare you for surgery.
They may advise you:
- what medicines you should and should not take before and on the day of surgery
- what you can eat and drink before surgery
You should discuss any questions or concerns with your doctor or anaesthetist.
The general anaesthetic will usually be injected into a vein, usually on the back of your hand, through a thin plastic tube called a cannula. Alternatively, it may be given as a gas that you inhale through a mask.
During surgery, the anaesthetist will monitor your level of consciousness, your temperature, your breathing and your blood pressure. The amount of anaesthetic you have can be adjusted if necessary.
When you wake from the anaesthetic, you will feel sleepy. You might feel nauseous. You will probably be in an area known as the recovery room. A nurse will monitor you. You may need medications to reduce nausea or pain.
If you are staying in hospital, you will be transferred back to your own bed once you are fully awake.
If you are going home after day surgery, you will wait until you are fully conscious and alert. You should not drive home after an anaesthetic. It is best to arrange for someone to pick you up or help you get home. It is best if you are with someone for the next 24 hours after surgery so they can keep an eye on you.
What are the risks and side effects of a general anaesthetic?
Possible risks and side effects include nausea and vomiting, physical injuries such as damage to your teeth or nerves, a sore throat or reactions to drugs. In extremely rare cases, patients may lose their sight or die due to a general anaesthetic.
Some people are frightened that they might be aware during the operation or feel pain. Your anaesthetist will monitor you throughout the operation to make sure this does not happen.
If you are worried about risks and side effects, talk to your anaesthetist before surgery.
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Last reviewed: February 2020