Female Doctor preparing anesthetic syringe. Shallow depth of field with focus on the front placed syringe. Shot with EOS 7D and Softbox lighting.

When a person is under general anesthesia, he is completely unconscious and does not feel any pain during medical procedures. General anesthesia comprises mainly of inhaled gases and intravenous drugs.

General anesthesia is not just sleep. The brain fails to respond to pain reflexes or signals. An anesthesia is administered by an anesthesiologist. When the patient is unconscious, the anesthesiologist carefully reads the vital signs and manages the patient’s breathing.

In many health facilities, an anesthesiologist may work together with a certified registered nurse anesthetist (CRNA).

Why is it done?

Your anesthesiologist together with the anesthetist nurse will recommend the best anesthesia option for you. The recommendation is based on your overall health status, individual preferences and the type of surgery you will be undergoing. For some procedures, general anesthesia may be recommended. Such procedures may include:

  • Prolonged duration
  • Significant blood loss
  • Exposure to a cold environment
  • Difficulty in breathing (especially in the case of upper abdominal or chest surgery).

Other forms of anesthesia, such as sedating the patient lightly in combination with local anesthesia or regional anesthesia may be inappropriate for more involved procedures.


Generally, anesthesia is usually safe. People with underlying health conditions can usually pull through it without any problems.

As a matter of fact, the risk of complications is more associated with the surgery itself than with the type of anesthesia.

Older patients, or those with chronic underlying health problems, especially those having more extensive procedures may have an increased risk of pneumonia, post-operative confusion, stroke or even a heart attack. Some conditions that can increase the risk of a complication during a surgery include:

  • Seizures
  • Smoking
  • Obesity
  • Obstructive sleep apnea
  • Hypertension
  • Diabetes
  • NSAIDs and aspirin or other medications that can increase bleeding
  • Heavy alcohol usage
  • Drug allergies
  • History of negative reactions to anesthesia.

Possible short-term side effects?

Short term side effects occur immediately after the surgical procedure. It does not last long. Once the surgery is completed and the anesthesia medication is withdrawn, the patient will wake slowly in the surgical theatre. There may be a little feeling of confusion or grogginess.

The following common side effects may also be experienced:

  • Nausea and vomiting: This occurs immediately after the surgery. Some patients may feel sick for at most two days after the surgery. Some anti-nausea medications may be administered to help curb this.
  • Dry mouth: There may be a parched feeling upon waking up. This may be controlled by taking a sip of water.
  • Sore throat: This is usually caused by the tube placed into the mouth to help the patient breathe during the surgery. The sore throat shows up once the tube is removed.
  • Chills and shivering: The body temperature may go low during a general anesthesia. However, the healthcare professionals will ensure that it doesn’t reduce to extreme levels. You may wake with a feeling of cold and possibly a shiver.
  • Fuzzy thinking and confusion: A feeling of drowsiness, fogginess and confusion may hit the patient after he wakes from anesthesia. This lasts for just a few hours. However, it may last for days or weeks in older adults.
  • Muscle aches: Drugs used for muscle relaxation during surgery can cause soreness of the muscle afterwards
  • Itching may result from the use of narcotic medications during or after the operation. This side effect is quite common.
  • Dizziness and bladder problems may also result after general anesthesia.

Possible long-term side effects

Long-term side effects are not common. However, older adults may experience side effects that lasts more than a couple of days. Such side effects include:

  • Postoperative delirium
  • Postoperative cognitive dysfunction (POCD): This is characterized by cognitive impairment after the surgery. It may or may not be due to the anesthesia.Studies have shown that people above 60 years of age are more likely to develop POCD. Other risk factors for developing a POCD include history of a stroke, heart disease, lung disease, Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.

The bottom line

Before going in for any surgery, it is important that the patient discusses his health condition with his doctor. The doctor or anesthesiologist will effectively manage and treat your side effects, though this depends on how honest the patient is.

Patients should ensure that they follow all presurgery instructions including limitations on food intake and medications. Compliance with these instructions can help minimize some side effects of anesthesia.