Healthdirect Free Australian health advice you can count on.

Medical problem? Call 1800 022 222. If you need urgent medical help, call triple zero immediately

healthdirect Australia is a free service where you can talk to a nurse or doctor who can help you know what to do.

beginning of content

Anaesthetics (overview)

4-minute read

This page will give you information about different forms of anaesthesia. If you have any questions, you should ask your GP or other relevant health professional.

What is an anaesthetic?

An anaesthetic is a combination of drugs that causes loss of sensation.

  • General anaesthetic — A combination of drugs that produce deep sleep. You will not be aware of what is happening and afterwards you will not remember anything that has happened.
  • Epidural or spinal anaesthetic — Involves injecting local anaesthetics and other painkillers near your spinal cord to give pain relief in certain areas of your body.
  • Local anaesthetic — Temporarily stops nerves working so that you do not feel pain. The anaesthetic can be injected just around the area where the operation is going to take place. It is possible to numb the nerves to your arm or leg (a nerve block).

What are the benefits of an anaesthetic?

  • You may need to have an operation or procedure — So that your surgeon or doctor can perform the operation safely, you need to be in a state where you do not move and your muscles are relaxed. A safe way to achieve this is to give you an anaesthetic.
  • You may be in pain because you have had surgery or have a particular condition — Anaesthetics, usually given by an epidural, can give you pain relief and keep you comfortable.

How is a general anaesthetic given?

Most people are sent to sleep by injecting the anaesthetic through a drip (small tube) in a vein. It takes about 30 seconds to work.

For some people it may be more appropriate to go to sleep by breathing an anaesthetic gas through a face mask. This also takes about 30 seconds to work.

How is an epidural or spinal anaesthetic given?

An epidural works by temporarily numbing your nerves to give pain relief. A fine catheter (tube) is inserted in the epidural space, near your spinal cord.

Local anaesthetics and other painkillers are injected down the catheter into the epidural space to numb your nerves.

The technique for a spinal is similar but usually involves only one injection into the subarachnoid space (bag of fluid that surrounds your spinal cord).

Illustration showing a catheter in the epidural space.
A catheter in the epidural space.

How is a local anaesthetic given?

The simplest form of local anaesthesia is to inject the anaesthetic just around the area where the operation is going to take place.

For a nerve block, local anaesthetics and other painkillers are injected near the major nerves to the part of your body to be operated on.

What complications can happen?

Some of these can be serious and can even cause death.

General anaesthetic

There are a number of possible minor complications (not disabling or life-threatening) such as feeling sick, sore throat, difficulty passing urine and headache.

  • loss or change of hearing
  • eye injury
  • nerve injury
  • heart attack
  • stroke
  • chest infection and other breathing problems
  • allergic reaction
  • death

Epidural or spinal anaesthetic

  • failure of the epidural or spinal
  • low blood pressure
  • headache
  • infection around your spine
  • cardiovascular collapse (where your heart stops)
  • short-term nerve injury
  • blood clot around your spine
  • paralysis or death

Local anaesthetic

  • not enough pain relief
  • allergic reaction
  • bleeding
  • nerve damage
  • absorption into your bloodstream

Summary

There are different forms of anaesthesia that can be used to provide a safe and effective way for you to have an operation or procedure, and to give you pain relief. Most people do not have any problems and are satisfied with their anaesthetic.

IMPORTANT INFORMATION

The operation and treatment information on this page is published under license by Healthdirect Australia from EIDO Healthcare Australia and is protected by copyright laws. Other than for your personal, non-commercial use, you may not copy, print out, download or otherwise reproduce any of the information. The information should not replace advice that your relevant health professional would give you. Medical Illustration Copyright © Medical-Artist.com.

For more on how this information was prepared, click here.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: September 2021


Back To Top

Need more information?

These trusted information partners have more on this topic.

Top results

Epidural

Epidural is highly effective local anaesthetic procedure includes injectind anaesthetic around the spinal nerves in your lower back.

Read more on Pregnancy, Birth & Baby website

Anaesthesia and day surgery | Sydney Children's Hospitals Network

What is general anaesthesia? General anaesthesia is a way of making sure a child is more than just asleep

Read more on Sydney Children's Hospitals Network website

General anaesthetics - Better Health Channel

betterhealth.vic.gov.au

Read more on Better Health Channel website

ANZCA | Anaesthesia for eye surgery

Eye surgery can be performed under eye block, topical anaesthesia or general anaesthesia.

Read more on ANZCA – Australian and New Zealand College of Anaesthetists website

Epidurals and breastfeeding | Australian Breastfeeding Association

How does an epidural work?With an epidural, a small plastic tube is inserted between the bones of your spine, into the space around your spinal cord. A combination of drugs is given through the tube. A local anaesthetic blocks nerves in the spinal cord that transmit pain signals and an opiate provides further pain relief.

Read more on Australian Breastfeeding Association website

ANZCA | Types of anaesthesia

There are several types of anaesthesia that may be used individually or in combination, depending on the surgery.

Read more on ANZCA – Australian and New Zealand College of Anaesthetists website

Anaesthesia and risk in infants | Sydney Children's Hospitals Network

Modern anaesthesia and surgery is very safe for children and infants

Read more on Sydney Children's Hospitals Network website

ANZCA | Anaesthesia and children

Anaesthesia is relatively safe and can be given to children of all ages, including newborn babies.

Read more on ANZCA – Australian and New Zealand College of Anaesthetists website

ANZCA | Anaesthesia and cosmetic surgery

This information has been developed by accredited specialist anaesthetists to help anyone who is considering cosmetic surgery in Australia or New Zealand. It will help you to understand the risks associated with anaesthesia, and the key questions you should ask before having a cosmetic procedure.

Read more on ANZCA – Australian and New Zealand College of Anaesthetists website

ANZCA | About anaesthesia

Most of us will need the care of an anaesthetist at some stage in our lives. We've created this information to help you feel more relaxed about having surgery under anaesthesia.

Read more on ANZCA – Australian and New Zealand College of Anaesthetists website

Healthdirect 24hr 7 days a week hotline

24 hour health advice you can count on

1800 022 222

Government Accredited with over 140 information partners

We are a government-funded service, providing quality, approved health information and advice

Australian Government, health department logo ACT Government logo New South Wales government, health department logo Northen Territory Government logo Government of South Australia, health department logo Tasmanian government logo Victorian government logo Government of Western Australia, health department logo