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Allaying anesthesia fears

Anyone facing major surgery is likely to worry about being “put under” for the procedure. That’s understandable—after all, trusting someone to make you unconscious, then reawaken you, is a tall order.

But you needn’t be overly concerned. Each year in the U.S., doctors perform some 40 million procedures involving anesthesia, and the risks are extremely low.

Service interruptions

Anesthesia interrupts the flow of messages carried by nerve cells from distant parts of our body to our brain. By blocking the pain messages that surgery causes, anesthesia lets doctors perform operations that would otherwise be impossible.

If you’re going in for major surgery, you may be surprised by what you experience. Gone are the days when patients inhaled ether through a mask and anesthesiologists used stethoscopes and blood-pressure cuffs as monitoring tools.

Today’s anesthesiologists specialize in math, physics, biology, chemistry and internal medicine and have vastly superior monitoring equipment compared to a few decades ago, according to the American Society of Anesthesiologists (ASA). And they now plan your anesthesia from among dozens of new gases, vapors and compounds. This way, you receive anesthetics that are the most effective for your particular age, gender, condition and diagnosis.

Three basic types of anesthesia are available:

  • local, such as when a dentist fills a cavity. Only a small part of your body is numbed, either topically or by injection, and you remain fully awake.
  • regional, such as spinal or epidural anesthesia during childbirth. This numbs a section of your body. You may also receive sedatives intravenously to help you relax. Though groggy, you remain awake.
  • general, such as for organ surgery, hip replacements or cosmetic procedures. Under careful monitoring, you are induced to sleep with intravenous drugs and then put into an unconscious state so surgery can proceed. You’ll have no memory of the operation when you reawaken.

Information, please

Before surgery, you’ll meet with the anesthesiologist and surgeon to discuss what’s ahead. Remember, general anesthesia affects your entire system, so it’s very important to share everything about your medical history with them.

Expect questions about:

  • any underlying medical problems you have
  • all medicines, including dietary or herbal supplements you’re taking
  • whether you smoke or drink alcohol
  • food or drug allergies
  • your and your family’s history of any reactions to anesthesia

Ask about any concerns you have, no matter how sensitive they may seem. Of course, almost every surgical procedure involves some risk, so discuss these with your medical team as well.