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.


18 Join the Discussion

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    • Hi, Matt! Thanks for visiting Wonderopolis today! We know sometimes going to the doctor or dentist and needing anesthesia can be scary. But we ALL have to be brave about scary things sometimes—especially when they help keep our bodies healthy! :-)

  1. Anesthesia is scary i think. I dnt know if i would EVER be brave enough to do that! its kreepy and i am not very fond of the doctors office

    • Sure you would, Sydney! Your friends in Wonderopolis know you could do it if you needed to! Have a SUPER day! :-)

    • We know you would be a brave Wonder Friend, too, Clayton! Thanks for commenting on this Wonder of the Day today! :-)

  2. I had surgery to remove one of my kidney’s and they used generalized anesthesia. I was terrified of the process at first but when all was done and over with, there wasn’t any point to being scared. It was like, well blinking. One second I was awake talking to a nurse before she was giving me a sedative (Which is what they give you before the anesthesia) then the next, a nurse was waking me up and everything was done. I was loopy but that was from the pain meds they were feeding me through the incision site. But one of the side effects to anesthesia that no one told me is that it can make you feel like like all of your skin is kind of itchy, not bad but more of a tingling itchiness. it only lasted about 12-16 hours. Through my hospital stay and being on medicine that’s what I remember best.

    • Thanks for sharing your experience with everyone in Wonderopolis, Amber! Your story has helped other Wonder Friends see that even though anesthesia might sound scary, it’s sometimes necessary, and really shouldn’t be scary at all! Have a GREAT day! :-)

  3. When it talks about numbing a small part of the body, I had that done to my left foot. I got a fishhook in it by tripping on a fishing pole. The numbing stuff didn’t work at first so they had to give me a shot almost six times!
    IT HURT!!! The doctor never told me what he was doing so I wouldn’t freak out. So my dad told me everything afterward when I went home with my foot wrapped in cloth. When the hook went into my foot my dad told me he (a paramedic) could take it out himself or he could have a doctor do it. I chose a doctor.

    • Wow, that sounds like it hurt, Emma! Six shots is a lot! We’re glad you’re OK now…thanks for being a GREAT Wonder Friend! :-)

  4. Today, my mom had to go to the hospital for surgery. The doctors put an anesthesia on my mom before the surgery. She is still at the hospital. She will stay there for two days. The day my mom is out of the hospital, my Auntie Crystal will come to our house to help take care of my mom. I like this wonder. :D

    • We’re sorry to hear that your mom is in the hospital, Julie! We hope she gets to feeling better REALLY, REALLY soon! Thank you for sharing her story about needing anesthesia. You are a SUPER Wonder Friend!

  5. My mom will get out of the hospital tomorrow!
    She has been feeling pain when she moves from the incision (cut) from the surgery. :-)

    • Thanks for sharing an update about your mom, Julie! We’re so happy to hear that she will get to come home tomorrow! Please wish her a speedy recovery for us, OK? :-)

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Have you ever wondered…

  • What is anesthesia?
  • How many types of anesthesia are there?
  • Why does general anesthesia make patients forget what happened?

Wonder Gallery

Try It Out

Curious about what a local anesthetic feels like? Head to the freezer for a homemade frozen version of anesthesia!

Hold an ice cube on your arm until it begins to melt. The frozen ice cube will draw heat from your skin, leaving it feeling slightly numb.

Touch an area of your arm several inches away from the part under ice. Then, remove the ice cube and touch your skin where the ice cube was. Can you feel a difference?

It’s just a simple experiment, but it’s an easy way to learn how local anesthetics make your skin feel. If you’ve ever had a sunburn and used a medicine with benzocaine or lidocaine, you’ve already used a local anesthetic!


Still Wondering

Use Science NetLinks’ All Systems Go! resource to learn about the concept of separate body parts working together to build a body system.


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