If the dentist tells you he’s going to need to remove your wisdom teeth — or if you need to have a complex medical or dental procedure — you might want anesthesia.
The word anesthesia comes from the Greek words for “without” and “sensation.” If a potentially painful procedure is in your future, then you may certainly prefer to experience it with anesthesia and, therefore, “without sensation.”
Anesthesia is usually given to patients by either a doctor — called an “anesthesiologist” — or a nurse — called a “nurse anesthetist.” They use a mixture of medicines to create anesthesia for special purposes, including relaxation, pain relief, memory loss, muscle paralysis, anxiety reduction and sometimes complete unconsciousness.
If it sounds a little scary, you’ll be glad to know that the special doctors and nurses who give anesthesia make it as safe as possible by carefully calculating how much to use and then watching patients closely during procedures. Without anesthesia, many medical and dental procedures would be extremely painful, if not completely impossible.
Many people don’t realize that there are actually several types of anesthesia. The simplest and most common form is called “local anesthesia” because it only numbs a small part of the body.
Local anesthesia is usually applied by giving a shot of numbing medicine in the specific part of the body that needs a minor procedure, such as a small area of the mouth when getting a tooth pulled at the dentist.
Local anesthesia blocks the pain associated with minor procedures. Patients stay awake during the procedure and can remember everything that happens.
“Regional anesthesia” blocks pain to a larger part of the body by injecting medicine around major nerves or the spinal cord. Regional anesthesia may be used for procedures that are more painful or affect an area of the body too large to use a local anesthetic. For example, many women choose to receive an epidural during childbirth to block the pain throughout the entire lower body.
The most complex type of anesthesia is “general anesthesia.” Anesthesiologists give patients general anesthesia using either liquid medicine via a tube in a vein (intravenous or IV fluids) or gas medicine breathed in through a mask. Unlike local and regional anesthesia, general anesthesia affects the brain and the entire body.
General anesthesia is used for particularly painful or major surgeries. Patients “put under” general anesthesia remain completely unconscious throughout the procedure.
Not only does general anesthesia block the pain, it also causes the patient to forget the procedure. General anesthesia contains medicines known as “amnesiacs” that cause patients to forget the procedure and the time right afterward. These same medicines can make patients feel strange for quite a while until all the effects wear off.
The drugs used in general anesthesia can also be used in much smaller amounts during procedural sedation. Also known as conscious sedation or twilight anesthesia, procedural sedation is the type of anesthesia used during fairly short, minor procedures, such as wisdom teeth removal.
Under procedural sedation, patients stay awake during the procedure. However, they may be so sleepy and relaxed that they don’t feel the pain or remember much, if any, of the procedure afterward.