Anesthesia, general


General anesthesia is the induction of a balanced state of unconsciousness, accompanied by the absence of pain sensation and the paralysis of skeletal muscle over the entire body. It is induced through the administration of anesthetic drugs and is used during major surgery and other invasive surgical procedures.


General anesthesia is intended to bring about five distinct states during surgery:


A complete medical history, including a history of allergies in family members, is an important precaution. Patients may have a potentially fatal allergic response to anesthesia known as malignant hyperthermia, even if there is no previous personal history of reaction.

General anesthetics should be administered only by board-certified medical professionals. Anesthesia providers consider many factors, including a patient's age, weight, allergies to medications, medical history, and general health when deciding which anesthetic or combination of anesthetics to use. The American Society of Anesthesiologists has compiled guidelines for classifying patients according to risk levels as follows:

Equipment for general anesthesia should be thoroughly checked before the operation; all items that might be needed, such as extra tubes or laryngoscope blades, should be available. Staff members should be knowledgeable about the problems that might arise with the specific anesthetic being used, and be able to recognize them and respond appropriately. General anesthetics cause a lowering of the blood pressure (hypotension), a response that requires close monitoring and special drugs to reverse it in emergency situations.


General anesthetics may be gases or volatile liquids that evaporate as they are inhaled through a mask along with oxygen. Other general anesthetics are given intravenously. The amount of anesthesia produced by inhaling a general anesthetic can be adjusted rapidly, if necessary, by adjusting the anesthetic-to-oxygen ratio that is inhaled by the patient. The degree of anesthesia produced by an intravenously injected anesthetic cannot be changed as rapidly and must be reversed by administration of another drug.

The precise mechanism of general anesthesia is not yet fully understood. There are, however, several hypotheses that have been advanced to explain why general anesthesia occurs. The first, the so-called Meyer-Overton theory, suggests that anesthesia occurs when a sufficient number of molecules of an inhalation anesthetic dissolve in the lipid cell membrane. The second theory maintains that protein receptors in the central nervous system are involved, in that inhalation anesthetics inhibit the enzyme activity of proteins. A third hypothesis, proposed by Linus Pauling in 1961, suggests that anesthetic molecules interact with water molecules to form clathrates (hydrated microcrystals), which in turn inhibit receptor function.

A nurse anesthetist injecting medication into the intravenous tube of a patient during surgery. (Photo Researchers Inc. Reproduced by permission.)
A nurse anesthetist injecting medication into the intravenous tube of a patient during surgery. (
Photo Researchers Inc. Reproduced by permission.

Stages of anesthesia

There are four stages of general anesthesia that help providers to better predict the course of events, from anesthesia induction to emergence.

Types of anesthetic agents

There are two major types of anesthetics used for general anesthesia, inhalation and intravenous anesthetics. Inhalation anesthetics, which are sometimes called volatile anesthetics, are compounds that enter the body through the lungs and are carried by the blood to body tissues. Inhalation anesthetics are less often used alone in recent clinical practice; they are usually used together with intravenous anesthetics. A combination of inhalation and intravenous anesthetics, often with opioids added for pain relief and neuromuscular blockers for muscle paralysis, is called balanced anesthesia.

INHALATION ANESTHETICS. The following are the most commonly used inhalation anesthetics:

INTRAVENOUS ANESTHETICS. Commonly administered intravenous general anesthetics include ketamine, thiopental (a barbiturate), methohexital (Brevital), etomidate, and propofol (Diprivan). Ketamine produces a different set of reactions from other intravenous anesthetics. It resembles phencyclidine, which is a street drug that may cause hallucinations. Because patients who have been anesthetized with ketamine often have sensory illusions and vivid dreams during post-operative recovery, ketamine is not often given to adult patients. It is, however, useful in anesthetizing children, patients in shock, and trauma casualties in war zones where anesthesia equipment may be difficult to obtain.

General anesthesia in dental procedures

The use of general anesthesia in dental and oral surgery patients differs from its use in major surgery because the patient's level of fear is usually a more important factor than the nature of the procedure. In 1985, an NIH Consensus Statement reported that high levels of preoperative anxiety, lengthy and complex procedures, and the need for a pain-free operative period may be indications for general anesthesia in healthy adults and very young children. The NIH statement specified that at least three professionals are required when general anesthesia is used during dental procedures: one is the operating dentist; the second is a professional responsible for observing and monitoring the patient; the third person assists the operating dentist.

Although the United States allows general anesthesia for dental procedures to be administered outside hospitals (provided that the facility has the appropriate equipment and emergency drugs), Scotland banned the use of general anesthesia outside hospitals in 2000, after a ten-year-old boy died during a procedure to have a tooth removed.


Preparation for general anesthesia includes the taking of a complete medical history and the evaluation of all factors—especially a family history of allergic responses to anesthetics—that might influence the patient's response to specific anesthetic agents.

Patients should not eat or drink before general anesthesia because of the risk of regurgitating food and liquid or aspirating vomitus into the lungs.

Informed consent

Patients should be informed of the risks associated with general anesthesia as part of their informed consent . These risks include possible dental injuries from intubation as well as such serious complications as stroke, liver damage, or massive hemorrhage. If local anesthesia is an option for some procedures, the patient should be informed of this alternative. In all cases, patients should be given the opportunity to ask questions about the risks and benefits of the procedure requiring anesthesia as well as questions about the anesthesia itself.


Depending on the patient's level of anxiety and the procedure to be performed, the patient may be premedicated. Most medications given before general anesthesia are either anxiolytics, usually benzodiazepines; or analgesics. Patients in severe pain prior to surgery may be given morphine or fentanyl. Anticholinergics (drugs that block impulses from the parasympathetic nervous system) may be given to patients with a known history of bronchospasm or heavy airway secretions.


The anesthetist and medical personnel provide supplemental oxygen and monitor patients for vital signs and monitor their airways. Vital signs include an EKG (unless the patient is hooked up to a monitor), blood pressure, pulse rate, oxygen saturation, respiratory rate, and temperature. The staff also monitors the patient's level of consciousness as well as signs of excess bleeding from the incision.


Although the risk of serious complications from general anesthesia are low, they can include heart attack, stroke, brain damage, and death. The risk of complications depends in part on the patient's age, sex, weight, allergies, general health, and history of smoking, alcohol or drug use.

The overall risk of mortality from general anesthesia is difficult to evaluate, because so many different factors are involved, ranging from the patient's overall health and the circumstances preceding surgery to the type of procedure and the skill of the physicians involved. The risk appears to be somewhere between 1:1,000 and 1:100,000, with infants younger than age one and patients older than 70 being at greater risk.

Awareness during surgery

One possible complication is the patient's "waking up" during the operation. It is estimated that about 30,000 patients per year in the United States "come to" during surgery. This development is in part the result of the widespread use of short-acting general anesthetics combined with blanket use of neuromuscular blockade. The patients are paralyzed with regard to motion, but otherwise "awake and aware." At present, special devices that measure brain wave activity are used to monitor the patient's state of consciousness. The bispectral index monitor was approved by the FDA in 1996 and the patient state analyzer in 1999.

Nausea and vomiting

Post-operative nausea and vomiting is a common problem during recovery from general anesthesia. In addition, patients may feel drowsy, weak, or tired for several days after the operation, a combination of symptoms sometimes called the hangover effect. Fuzzy thinking, blurred vision, and coordination problems are also possible. For these reasons, anyone who has had general anesthesia should not drive, operate machinery, or perform other activities that could endanger themselves or others for at least 24 hours, or longer if necessary.

Anesthetic toxicity

Inhalation anesthetics are sometimes toxic to the liver, the kidney, or to blood cells. Halothane may cause hepatic necrosis or hepatitis. Sevoflurane may react with the carbon dioxide absorbents in anesthesia machines to form compound A, a haloalkene that is toxic to the kidneys. The danger to red blood cells comes from carbon monoxide formed by the breakdown products of inhalation anesthetics in the circuits of anesthesia machines.

Malignant hyperthermia

Malignant hyperthermia is a rare condition caused by an allergic response to a general anesthetic. The signs of malignant hyperthermia include rapid, irregular heartbeat; breathing problems; very high fever; and muscle tightness or spasms. These symptoms can occur following the administration of general anesthetics, especially halothane.

Normal results

General anesthesia is much safer today than it was in the past, thanks to faster-acting anesthetics; improved safety standards in the equipment used to deliver the drugs; and better devices to monitor breathing, heart rate, blood pressure, and brain activity during surgery. Unpleasant side effects are also less common, in part because of recent developments in equipment that reduces the problems of anesthetizing patients who are difficult to intubate. These developments include the laryngeal mask airway and the McCoy laryngoscope, which has a hinged tip on its blade that allows a better view of the patient's larynx.



U.S. Pharmacopeia Staff. Consumer Reports Complete Drug Reference. Yonkers, NY: Consumer Reports Books, 2002.


Christie, Bryan. "Scotland to Ban General Anaesthesia in Dental Surgeries." British Medical Journal 320 (March 4, 2000): 55–59.

Fox, Andrew J. and David J. Rowbotham. "Recent Advances in Anaesthesia." British Medical Journal 319 (August 28, 1999): 557–560.

Marcus, Mary Brophy. "How Does Anesthesia Work? A State That Is Nothing Like Sleep: No Memory, No Fight-or-Flight Response, No Pain." U.S. News & World Report 123 (August 18, 1997): 66.

Preboth, Monica. "Waking Up Under the Surgeon's Knife." American Family Physician (February 15, 1999).

Wenker, Olivier C., MD. "Review of Currently Used Inhalation Anesthetics: Parts I and II." The Internet Journal of Anesthesiology 3, nos. 2 and 3 (1999).


American Academy of Anesthesiologist Assistants. PO Box 81362, Wellesley, MA 02481-0004. (800) 757-5858. .

American Association of Nurse Anesthetists. 222 South Prospect Avenue, Park Ridge, IL 60068-4001 (847) 692-7050. .

American Society of Anesthesiologists. 520 N. Northwest Highway, Park Ridge, IL 60068-2573. (847) 825-5586. .


American Medical Association, Office of the General Counsel, Division of Health Law. Informed Consent. Chicago, IL: AMA Press, 1998.

Interview with Harvey Plosker, MD, board-certified anesthesiologist. The Pain Center, 501 Glades Road, Boca Raton, FL 33431.

NIH Consensus Statement. Anesthesia and Sedation in the Dental Office. 5, no. 10 (April 22–24, 1985): 1–18.

Lisette Hilton

Sam Uretsky, PharmD

User Contributions:

Cameron Knight
This article has really helped me learn of anesthesia. It has also taught me the different risks of it too. Anesthesiology is very fascinating to me, and I want to become an anesthesiologist one day. This is just getting me started. Thanks a lot.
this info is good and great for my report ihope to become one
Dr Imran
could u plz send me information regarding anesthesia in fever dangers?
Jessica Weightman
My son at the age of four years old, is about to have general anesthetic and this has helped answer some of the questions. Thanks.
Hey, im an 8th grader and in my language arts class we are doing a report on which career we want to become and this helped me alot & i was also wondering if you can email me soo i can get more info & help with my report ... Thank by the way!!
Age 64 I had knee replacement surgery, no local problems, zero complications w. knee, but major aftereffects of general anesthesia. Had overall weakness & could not pull up from bed for 3 weeks. For FOUR WEEKS after surgery, had panic attacks, claustrophobia, auditory and visual hallucinations, nausea, BP variations, chills, "night terrors". Never had this before, perfectly normal mental otherwise. What might have caused this? PLEASE some ideas because I'm now terrified of surgical complications.
I am in college I would like to be an anesthesialogoist assistant hopefully soon. This information has build my confidence so much. I look forward in learning more about anesthesia.
Where can I find a list of "required" equipment for anesthesia?
I need notes on Anesthesia.. plz send it on my email address..
Very helpful.., please provide more information about the intravenous general anesthetics drugs which are used now a days and the reversal dosage.

Thank you.
Cornucopia! Please i need more information about intravenous anaesthetic. Am a pharmacologist/physiologist in the making.
From Nigeria.
I want another medical opinion for my 4-month old baby, we were advised that this infant should undergo simultaneous major operation at the same time for his hydrocephalus and myelomeningocoele. What would be his medical chances of survival? The operation will last for 8 hours, is he capable to undergo general anesthesia? Pls. help!
Really an interesting topics. I m a student nurse in gccn . It will help in my profession. I want to know more information about the complication of anaesthesia during operation .
From Bangladesh
hi / i do operation of leaser co2 for post acne in face through general anesthesia and between any operat 30 day (throug 5 level of operat), are general anesthesia effeact on the body? and how much time between operat (any operation long 10 minut only? please replay my qustion in my mail
I am a benzo abuser and have been for many years. I had a minor outpatient D&C yesterday and post-op received 50 milligrams of demoral which dropped my heart rate from 50 down to 30. Frightened the nurse and me. I had mentioned that I took quite alot of xanax but didn't really explain the exact amount.
I am now needing a major thyroidectomy soon and want to know if anyone has advice as I fear that I won't make it through this alive. I'm a 58 year old woman so that complicates things too. Not a healthy woman..I feel.
I am immediately cutting down on my benzos to give myself a better chance and will tell my surgeon and anesthesiologist everything.
Any other advice would be very much appreciated.
why the thiopental is not give to patient (have dental problem )in setting state ???
Fluid filled my wife lungs, her heart stopped, she stopped breathing and the baby died. Right now she is in I.C.U.
I had a face lift on Monday at 9:30am which concluded at 3:30 pm; I was released at 4:30 pm by the facility even though I was still have severe, terrifying hallucinations. I could not walk on my own. My husband brought me home and I was hallucinating so badly I wouldn't leave the car as I thought I needed to go to the hospital; after an hour (still in the car) I started shivering even though it was 70 degrees and was still having horrifying hallucinations. The paramedics came, administered vitals and said I was ok. I neded a wheelchair to get into the house and sat in a recliner, suffering continually from the horrifying halluciations. At 3am we called the surgeon who said to go to the hospital to check oxygen levels (which were okay). Went home -- terrifying hallucinations and need for wheelchair continued; called doctor again who said "the anesthesia needs to get out of your system." This continued on for 40 hours!!! Was this an overdose and what can I do about it? I have post-traumatic disorder from this. 1: WAS I RELEASED FROM THE FACILITY TOO SOON? 2: WAS I OVERDOSED WITH THE ANESTHESIA? NOTE: I was on psych drugs and when I asked the anesthesliologist pre-sugery if he had reviewed my list of them he said "yes, last week." Please help me with this. Thank you! Sherry
I had fat transfer done to my face 3 weeks ago with twilight sedation for an hour. Since the procedure, I have woken up every morning with with shallow breathing. Once I am up it is usually fine or I just forget about it. I had a facelift 2 years ago with general anesthesia and remembered having the same reaction but it only lasted 2 weeks. Sometimes if I think I am having trouble breathing then I will have trouble breathing. So I am not sure how much of this is anxiety either. Is this normal? What can I do? Thanks, Di
If already on strong opioids and Benzos and antidepresemts what kind and how much GA is advised for oral surgeon? 5.8 and 200lbs??
I'm considering implants for 2 missing teeth. The information was helpful regarding what the various anesthetics effects produced are, and expected recovery time.
Thank you so much. now my report is done. I LOVE THIS SITE
My 16 month old was given general anesthesia during day surgery for dental work yesterday and still is having some difficulty breathing. Is this normal?
its very normal. Those are the after effects but if it persist see a doctor.
Snook eschmann
If awakened from surgery by pinching before awakening on your own, is it normal to be aware of everything going on around you but still unable to wake up? Is it normal to not wake up right away even though you can feel the pinching ?
Plz give information how to recovery of high heartbeat and low blood to control high heartbeat.
Yasser Harrak
Great article. The information was helpful regarding what the various anesthetics effects produced are and expected recovery time.
I had knee surgery and general anesthesia when I woke my husband noticed a cut on my face near my upper lip why would be?

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