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Medical Care
Medical Procedures

What You Should Know About Anesthesia

If you’ve ever had a tooth filled without Novocaine, you know the difference anesthesia can make. Anesthesia—whether it numbs your mouth or puts you into a full sleep—is designed to keep you comfortable during a procedure that otherwise might be hard to tolerate physically, emotionally, or both. “We have four goals: to see that you have no pain, that you’re drowsy or unconscious, that your body is still so that the surgeon can work on it, and that you aren’t left with bad memories of the procedure,” says Dr. Kristin Schreiber, an anesthesiologist at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

Here from the experts at Harvard Medical School, is information on the four basic kinds of anesthesia—local, which is typically administered to numb a small area; regional, which numbs a larger area, like your hand, arm, or foot; neuraxial (spinal or epidural), which is injected near the spine and numbs the lower half of your body; and general, which works in the brain to render you completely unconscious and unable to sense pain. The type used depends upon the procedure you’re having, your state of health, and, often, your preferences.

1 Local anesthesia

Unless you’ve made it through life without having your wisdom teeth extracted or an injury that required stitches, you’ve probably had local anesthesia. Local anesthetics are injected near the area to be treated, and their effects are limited to a fairly small area. They are usually administered by a professional—a nurse, dentist, or doctor—who will make sure the area is numb. Giving local anesthesia actually does not require specialized training. Although you won’t feel pain with a local, you may feel pressure. If you find that disturbing, you can be given a sedative to ease your anxiety.

2 Regional anesthesia

In regional anesthesia, local anesthetics are injected near clusters of nerves to numb a larger area, or region, of the body. A classic example is hand surgery, where a shot of numbing medicine near the nerves in the armpit makes the whole arm go numb for three to 24 hours, depending on the type of numbing medicine used.

3 Neuraxial anesthesia

Neuraxial anesthesia includes epidurals and spinals. In neuraxial anesthesia, numbing medicine is placed near the spinal roots, making an even larger part of the body numb than regional anesthesia does. Epidurals are commonly given to ease the pain of labor and childbirth or the pain with a large abdominal incision. Spinals, which block sensation to the abdomen and lower body, are frequently used for cesarean section and knee surgery.