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Anesthesia: How Does It Work?

I'm going to be honest. When it comes to surgery, the idea of being "put to sleep" for a couple hours freaks me out. I will admit it, I am more afraid of the anesthesia than the scalpel. Are you freaked out a little too? Maybe if we knew more about anesthesia, we'd feel better about it.

When it comes to anesthesia, there are 4 kinds:

  • Local - this involves numbing a small area by injecting a shot just under the skin. (Lidocaine is a popular local anesthetic used by many dentists).
  • Regional - A certain area is made numb, but you are still conscious (an epidural is an example).
  • Sedation - This is also known as "twilight sleep." The person is just drowsy and it makes them more comfortable. Low levels of general anesthesia are used to produce this sensation.
  • General - You are given liquid or a gas that makes you unaware of what's happening, immobile, pain-free, and free from any memory during the period you were anesthetized (this is the stuff they use when you are having major surgery).

So how does it work? To find out

Scientists and doctors don't completely understand exactly how anesthesia works, but they speculate that blocking nerve impulses to your brain is what makes you numb. At a cellular level this occurs by blocking sodium channels in the nerve membranes. When sodium is blocked in this way, the nerve cannot conduct an impulse and therefore no sensation can be transmitted.

Where you go numb and for how long depends on where the drug is administered and how much of it. Local and regional anesthesia are pretty safe for the most part, but with general anesthesia, since your entire body is affected, a patient's vital signs are carefully monitored while they're "under." With all types of anesthesia, as long as you're healthy and young, you shouldn't have any complications.

Hopefully all that allays your fears a bit.


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