5+1 Facts on the Mystery of General Anaesthesia

If you’re not friends with an anaesthesiologist you should definitely reconsider your attitude. Everyone comes in contact at least once in a lifetime with these special people. They are the hidden heroes of your mental and physical state while undergoing surgery. Here are 5+1 facts on the mystery of  general anaesthesia as we know it.

The intriguing thing however is that no one really knows what goes on inside the patient’s brain during his trance. Anesthesia is a personal experience that relies almost exclusively on how the one in charge fixes the exact substance dosage.

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#1. A simple definition

General anesthesia is the induction of a state of unconsciousness with the absence of pain sensation over the entire body, through the administration of anesthetic drugs. It is used during certain medical and surgical procedures.

#2. The body’s pain signal has always been hard to defeat

Throughout history, there have been several attempts to control and eliminate pain. The Chinese developed acupuncture. The Greeks and Romans used alcohol, for both internal and external purposes, American Indians relied on the bark of the willow tree, a precursor to our modern-day aspirin.

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It was not until American dentist, William Thomas Green Morton, used ether to remove a tooth, that this substance became routine when it came to pain inhibition. After Morton had tried ether on animals, including his own dog, and then on himself, he demonstrated this successfully in front of a group of doctors and students at Massachusetts General Hospital.

However the first known effective local anesthetic was cocaine.

In the meantime, the mid-1800s, surgeons had to hack off limbs, sew up wounds and remove mysterious growths with nothing to dull the patient’s pain but opium or booze. Now that’s what I call close to zero effectiveness!

#3. How does it work?

Dr. Michael Port Demonstrates Administering Propofol

Today, among the modern general anesthetics mixtures of inhalable gases, which include nitrous oxide (laughing gas) and various derivatives of ether, such as Isoflurane, Sevoflurane, and desflurane can be found. Skilled anesthesiologists administer the drugs through machines that measure the exact amount necessary to keep the patient out for the surgery, but not forever. Moreover, as the drugs interfere with breathing, patients are often intubated (a plastic or rubber tube is inserted in the trachea to keep the airway open for a mechanical ventilator to take care of the patient’s breathing.

#4. Beware of anaesthesia awareness

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During general anaesthesia, the anaesthetic first enters the bloodstream, and travels in the blood to the central nervous system. There it acts on the brain’s nerve cells, making them lose the ability to send and receive messages. The patient then falls unconscious, and can feel no sensation.

However anaesthesia awareness can occur during general anesthesia, on the operating table, when the general anesthetic or analgesic provided to send the patient into the unconscious state during general anesthesia is not effective, while the agents used to paralyze the patient are. This means that the patient is unable to move or speak, but can either hear or feel whatever it’s done to him. That’s quite horrible, I’d say.

#5. The mystery still remains a mystery

Despite their necessity and extended use in modern medicine, scientists aren’t sure exactly how anaesthetics actually work. The best theory suggests that they dissolve some of the fat present in brain cells, changing the cells’ activity. But, the precise mechanisms remain unknown.

#5+1. Trivia: Redheads are harder to be put to sleep

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In an experiment, 10 brunettes and 10 redheads were given an anesthetic and were subjected to electrical shocks. The read-heads required an average of 20% more anesthetic to become too numb to feel the shocks. This test was part of a 2002 study in the University of Louisville.

So let’s feel grateful that anaesthesiologists exist in the operating room and make sure that we wake up, making the whole procedure worth the effort. As long as it works, it’s less important to fully understand the whole process that goes on inside the patient’s brain. But still, it’s said that a lot of them experience quite an inner joy ride.


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