When is general anesthesia used, and is it safe?
General anesthesia is very safe. Even if you have significant health problems, you will most likely tolerate general anesthesia without serious problems.
But with any medication or medical procedure, you may experience some side effects. Here’s what to expect.
Most side effects of general anesthesia occur immediately after your operation and don’t last long. Once surgery is done and anesthesia medications are stopped, you’ll slowly wake up in the operating room or recovery room. You’ll probably feel groggy and a bit confused.
You may also feel any of these common side effects:
- Nausea and vomiting. This common side effect usually occurs immediately after the procedure, but some people may continue to feel sick for a day or two. Anti-nausea medicines can help.
- Dry mouth. You may feel parched when you wake up. As long as you’re not too nauseated, sipping water can help take care of your dry mouth.
- Sore throat or hoarseness. The tube put in your throat to help you breathe during surgery can leave you with a sore throat after it’s removed.
- Chills and shivering. It’s common for your body temperature to drop during general anesthesia. Your doctors and nurses will make sure your temperature doesn’t fall too much during surgery, but you may wake up shivering and feeling cold. Your chills may last for a few minutes to hours.
- Confusion and fuzzy thinking. When first waking from anesthesia, you may feel confused, drowsy, and foggy. This usually lasts for just a few hours, but for some people — especially older adults — confusion can last for days or weeks.
- Muscle aches. The drugs used to relax your muscles during surgery can cause soreness afterward.
- Itching. If narcotic (opioid) medications are used during or after your operation, you may be itchy. This is a common side effect of this class of drugs.
- Bladder problems. You may have difficulty passing urine for a short time after general anesthesia.
- Dizziness. You may feel dizzy when you first stand up. Drinking plenty of fluids should help you feel better.
Most people won’t experience any long-term side effects. However, older adults are more likely to experience side effects that last more than a couple of days.
This may include:
- Postoperative delirium. Some people may become confused, disoriented, or have trouble remembering things after surgery. This disorientation can come and go, but it usually goes away after about a week.
- Postoperative cognitive dysfunction (POCD). Some people may experience ongoing memory problems or other types of cognitive impairment after surgery. But it’s unlikely that this is the result of the anesthesia. It seems to be a result of the surgery itself.
You may also be more likely to develop POCD if you have:
- had a stroke
- heart disease
- lung disease
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Parkinson’s disease
For the most part, general anesthesia is very safe. It’s the surgical procedure itself that puts you at risk. But older people and those having long procedures are most at risk of side effects and bad outcomes.
If you have any of the following conditions, be sure to tell your doctor because these conditions can affect how well you do during and after surgery:
- history of adverse reactions to anesthesia
- sleep apnea
- high blood pressure
- heart disease
- lung disease
- kidney disease
- drug allergies
You should also let your doctor know if you:
- use alcohol heavily
- take blood-thinning medications
Very rarely, people may be aware of what’s going on during surgery. Some experts estimate that about 1 out of every 1,000 people regain consciousness but remain unable to move, talk, or otherwise alert their doctor. Other sources report it being even more rare, as infrequent as 1 out of 15,000 or 1 out of 23,000.
When this happens, the person usually doesn’t feel any pain. However, operative awareness can be very distressing and may cause long-term psychological problems, similar to post-traumatic stress disorder.
If you experience operative awareness under general anesthesia, you may find it beneficial to talk to a therapist or a counselor about your experience.
If you need surgery, you probably don’t want to feel what’s going on. Depending on the type of surgery, this can be accomplished in a variety of ways.
Your doctor will likely recommend general anesthesia if your procedure is going to:
- take a long time
- result in blood loss
- affect your breathing
General anesthesia is essentially a medically induced coma. Your doctor administers medication to make you unconsciousness so that you won’t move or feel any pain during the operation.
Other procedures can be done with:
- local anesthetic, like when you get stitches in your hand
- sedation, like when you get a colonoscopy
- a regional anesthetic, like when you get an epidural to deliver a baby
Your doctor will walk you through your individual options when planning for your procedure. They’ll be able to answer any questions you may have about what will be used and why.
It’s important for you talk openly with your doctors about all your health information. Your anesthesiologist can safely manage your care and treat your side effects, but only if you’re honest.
When you talk with your surgeon and anesthesiologist before the procedure, be sure to talk with them about your concerns and expectations. You should also discuss your:
- prior anesthesia experience
- health conditions
- medication use
- recreational drug use
Be sure to follow all of your presurgery instructions — including what you can or can’t eat and drink as well as medications you should or shouldn’t take. Following these instructions can help minimize some side effects of general anesthesia.