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Anaesthetics (overview)

3-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.

You can also download and print a PDF version of this factsheet, with space for your own questions or notes.

What is an anaesthetic?

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

What is a general anaesthetic?

A general anaesthetic is a combination of drugs that causes deep sleep. You will not be aware of what is happening and afterwards you will not remember anything that has happened.

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.

What is an epidural or spinal anaesthetic?

An 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.

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.

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

What is a local anaesthetic?

A 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 (called a nerve block).

What complications can happen?

General anaesthetic

Minor complications include feeling sick, sore throat, difficulty passing urine and headache. The following are the possible serious complications.

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

Epidural or spinal anaesthetic

  • failure of the epidural or spinal
  • low blood pressure
  • headache
  • infection around your spine
  • cardiovascular collapse
  • 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 anaestheisa 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.

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Last reviewed: September 2018

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The Australian and New Zealand College of Anaesthetists (ANZCA) is the professional organisation for around 6400 specialist anaesthetists (Fellows) and 1500 anaesthetists in training (trainees). One of Australasia's largest specialist medical colleges, ANZCA is responsible for the training, examination and specialist accreditation of anaesthetists and pain medicine specialists and for the standards of clinical practice in Australia and New Zealand. The College also plays a significant role in the advancement of anaesthesia in south-east Asia and South Pacific island countries.

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