The anaesthetic

Anaesthetics stop you feeling pain and other sensations, they can be given in a number of ways.

General anaesthesia – You are unconscious (asleep) and feel nothing. Almost all thoracic operations are done under general anaesthetic.

Local anaesthesia – An injection that numbs a part of your body. You stay awake but free from pain. This is commonly done by the surgeon to numb around the incision and keep you comfortable after the operation.

Regional anaesthesia – An injection that numbs a larger or deeper part of the body, such as an epidural. You stay conscious but free from pain.

What do anaesthetists do?
The person who gives anaesthetics is a fully qualified doctor called an anaesthetist.  Consultant anaesthetists have at least 6 years specialist training. Their special skills help to make surgery as safe and successful as possible. They give your anaesthetic and look after your well-being and safety throughout surgery. Before surgery they will ask you about your operation and about your health. This helps them to decide the best way to look after you.

Your anaesthetist will see you before your operation and talk to you about what will happen. They will agree a plan with you for your anaesthetic and pain control. They will also advise on the care needed straight after the operation, if you need to be cared for in the Intensive Care Unit they will plan this care. Nothing will happen to you until you understand and agree with a plan. You can choose not to have certain treatments if you do not want them. A needle is used to start your anaesthetic. If this worries you, please talk to your anaesthetist.

General anaesthetics

There are two ways of starting a general anaesthetic.

  • Drugs can be injected into a vein (this is usually used for adults)
  • You can breathe gas through a mask (this is usually only used in small children)

Once you are asleep, an anaesthetist stays with you at all times and keeps you asleep. Your breathing will be watched carefully and helped by a machine. Your heart and blood pressure will be watched and kept stable with medication. Some operations need more monitoring, this will be explained to you. You will have a drip to give you fluid and medication. A blood transfusion can be given through the drip if needed. If we need to monitor your kidneys, a tube (catheter) will be put into the bladder after you are asleep. You will need a catheter if you are having an epidural. We try to avoid using catheters unless really needed.

Once the operation is finished, the drugs will be stopped so that you wake up.

Why does the anaesthetist cancel some operations?

Sometimes the anaesthetist may find out something about your health that makes the risk of going to sleep too high. If the problem can be improved, or needs further checks your operation may be delayed. Our main concern is your wellbeing and we will only delay your operation to make it as safe as possible. Any delays will be explained to you at the time.

If you have a mild cold this may not always mean that your operation cannot take place. If you have a temperature, feel ill or have a bad cough then your operation may need to be cancelled.

What are the risks of having an anaesthetic?
The risks involved in having a modern anaesthetic are very low. Most people are able to have a general anaesthetic, but there are some risks. The risk to you will depend on whether you have any other medical conditions and whether they are under control. Risks also depend on whether the operation is complicated, long or done in an emergency.

The majority of risks are relatively minor, and include:

  • soreness and swelling around the site of any injection
  • sore throat due to tubes used to help with your breathing
  • feeling and being sick
  • feeling “run down” for a few days afterwards
  • you may be thirsty, shiver or have short term memory loss until you are fully awake

More serious complications are uncommon and are usually related to major surgery or poor general health. Your anaesthetist will discuss any likely risks with you before the operation. Death caused by anaesthesia is very rare, and are usually caused by a combination of 4 or 5 complications together. There are probably about five deaths for every million anaesthetics in the UK.

Further information

If you would like further advice, please speak to your doctor, or a member of staff.

Further information about anaesthetics can be found online. The Royal College of Anaesthetists & the Association of Anaesthetists of Great Britain and Ireland have a joint web site that gives further information about anaesthetics.