Risks of General Anesthesia – How Does Anesthesia Work?
It is relatively common for cosmetic surgery patients to have reservations about “going under” general anesthesia. It can be especially concerning for those who have not been under anesthesia before.
So what’s it like to ‘go under’ and is there anything that will help you better understand it before you undertake your cosmetic surgery procedure? Below you will find information ranging from how it works, the risks and what the safe limits are.
General Anesthesia: Is it safe?
The benefit of general anesthesia is that it is a method of ‘putting you temporarily asleep’ (which is how some people describe it). In other words, you will be unable to feel or register pain during your procedure.
When you have ANY type of surgery that requires general anesthesia, you will be completely unaware of your surroundings. This is another reason why it’s so important to only have surgery performed in an accredited, monitored hospital.
The Anaesthetic medications and other methods that are used in operating rooms ALSO prevent you from making reflexive movements during surgery. The ability to help ensure stillness within the body, whilst maintaining other important bodily functions, is extremely important for patient safety during surgical procedures.
General Anesthesia: How does it work, exactly?
General anesthesia usually uses a combination of medications, that are injected through your veins using a cannula/needle and/or inhaled through a breathing mask. It renders the body into a state of general stillness. Including a lack of reflexive movement, a lack of physical sensations of discomfort and pain, and yet maintains important bodily functions until it’s time for the surgery to end. At this stage medicines that are helping the body to ‘go deep’ and ‘relax’ are stopped and the body slowly returns to its normal state.
Is General Anesthesia the same as being “put to sleep”?
- No, although doctors are often heard using the phrase ‘put to sleep’ it is not actually like going to sleep
- General Anesthesia is different and more significant than just a deeper type of nighttime sleep.
- Even in deep sleep, you can be woken is someone pokes and prods you.
- This is not the case when it comes to general anesthesia.
- General anesthesia looks more like a coma, all be it a reversible one
- You will lose awareness, the ability to feel pain, form memories and move.
General Anesthesia has been around for a long time, and many people appreciate what it has meant for modern medicine. It would be impossible to perform life-saving procedures like brain surgery, organ transplants and open-heart surgery without general anesthesia.
Are you unconscious or just asleep when you have General Anesthesia?
When you undergo General Anesthesia, whether, for elective or necessary surgery, your brain will NOT tend to respond to certain signals or typical reflex responses. In some ways, it could be compared to being in a medically-induced or drug-induced state similar to a coma. However, it’s a controlled state that is reversible when the Anaesthesia medications that are keeping you in that state are stopped.
Consciousness is trickier to answer, most people have NO memory of the surgery and feel they merely blinked and the surgery is over, even though some procedures are several hours long (such as body contouring, skin reduction after weight loss, or a Tummy Tuck and Breast Surgery combined to perform a Mummy Makeover surgery).
General Anesthesia is a medical procedure best performed by well-trained, highly experienced Anesthetists.
Our Melbourne Surgery Specialists insist on using experienced surgical support teams including seasoned Anaesthetists. Often, teams, have worked together for many years or even decades. You can tell a well-known surgical team from a less-known surgical team by their sense of familiarity and the smoothness – and often camaraderie – which they share in the surgery room.
But more than this, you’ll know you’ve got a seasoned Anesthetist by the questions they ask you and the forms they go over with you before surgery. This will generally happen at some stage before your surgery; most often in the pre-op room prior to you talk with your Surgeon about your surgical procedure.
What are the Risks when under General Anaesthesia?
There are risks for some people when it comes to General Anaesthesia. It’s important not to overlook this fact, risks are real and all surgery is serious. However, it’s best not to dwell on it unnecessarily.
Nevertheless, you need to ensure that your well informed about potential surgery risks before you consent to have cosmetic surgery. No matter whether it’s for a breast lift, breast reduction, breast augmentation, tummy tuck, body contouring, liposuction or rhinoplasty.
Some people WILL have a rare detrimental reaction to general anesthetic (or even topical/local anesthetic). The key thing to remember is that whilst it can happen, it’s typically very rare.
Plus, a good Anesthetist will often screen their patients for any predictable factors that may make a particular patient more susceptible to potential risks or potential allergic reactions than others.
Risks of Anesthetic:
When asked what they fear about Anesthetic patients often have two common fears;
- Firstly, that they wont wake up
- Secondly, they won’t be put “fully to sleep” and will be awake but paralyzed during their procedure.
First and foremost, both cases are extremely, extremely rare. In fact, the likelihood of someone having a fatal reaction under anesthesia is less than 1 in 100,000.
Other risks from Anesthetic include but are not limited to;
- Temporary confusion and/or memory loss.
- Difficulty passing urine
- Nausea and vomiting
- Bruising or soreness from the IV drip.
- Shivering and feeling cold.
Don’t increase your risk
DO NOT SMOKE. We can’t highlight this enough, some patients are not forthcoming about their smoking habits. Don’t let that be you. Not only does smoking increase nearly all risks related to surgery, but it also slows healing and can lead to substandard results.
- DO NOT smoke.
- Be honest with your Surgeon and your Anesthetist if you DO smoke, even if it’s just a little.
- One of the detrimental factors of any surgery procedure, including General Anaesthesia, is SMOKING.
- Smoking is a real “NO, NO!!!”
- You MUST advise your Surgeon if you smoke – even if you think it’s socially or “just a few cigarettes a day.”
It’s important that you QUIT SMOKING as soon as possible, the more time between your last cigarette and your surgery the better. Several weeks at a minimum but months and years are even better.
Talk to your GP to help you discover which quit method could be right for you.
Other safety factors to remember about General Anaesthesia include that almost 60,000 people undergo General Anaesthesia all over the world every day, without complications. Furthermore, while you’re unconscious, the anesthesiologist assesses and monitors your vital signs closely to monitor changes and avoid complications.
Why Doctors and Surgeons use General Anesthesia for most Plastic Cosmetic Surgery procedures
The type of anesthesia to be used for your procedure will depend on the recommendation of your Specialist Surgeon and/or your Anesthesiologist. A quality medical practitioner will consider several factors before making a recommendation about whether or not surgery is the best option for you. They will ensure that you receive and understand all the information before you give your consent. Some questions your Surgeon is likely to ask include;
- Reviewing your overall health
- Genetics/family health
- And, your individual preferences – including your suitability for a certain procedure based on what you’ve told your Surgeon – before making a decision to carry out the procedure for you at your request.
For certain procedures, general anesthesia simply makes the most sense. These include cosmetic procedures that require longer surgery times, significant amounts of blood loss, exposure to a cold environment, or procedures which may affect your breathing.
Other forms of anesthesia including light sedation combined with local anesthesia (used for small body areas or sometimes for eyelid lift surgery) or regional anesthesia (used for larger body areas. One example you may readily recognize is an Epidural during childbirth. However, these MAY NOT be appropriate for complex medical procedures and they may not be as comfortable as some cosmetic clinics try to make “awake” surgery( twilight sedation) sound.
How does General Anesthetics work to help still your body during plastic cosmetic surgery?
General anesthetics tend to act at multiple sites within your bodies central nervous system during your surgical procedure.
Some of the areas that general anesthetic impacts, temporarily, may include:
- Cerebral cortex: the outer layer of your brain, playing a critical role in your attention, your memory and your perception.
- Reticular activating system: the part of your brain that helps regulate your sleep-wake cycles.
- Spinal cord: the part of your body that helps relays information from your brain to the rest of your body, and the rest of your body to your brain. This occurs through “electric signals” or synapse energy exchanges.
- Thalamus: a part of your brain that plays a key role in relaying information from the senses to your brain.
Various brain chemical exchanges, known as neurotransmitters or receptors, are also temporarily impacted by having general anesthesia during Surgery:
- N-Methyl-D-aspartic acid (NMDA) receptors: Anesthetic drugs bind to NMDA receptors. These receptors are important in controlling memory functions; that’s why patients experience “short-term memory loss” or “amnesia about the surgery procedure” after undergoing general anesthesia. It’s highly unlikely suddenly you’ll one day remember what it was like to be under general anesthetia; it’s more like you’re about to go into surgery one minute, and it seems like a few seconds later, you’re suddenly awake – and in bandages or support garments after surgery! You might feel a bit groggy at first, or for a few days afterwards, which is usually quite normal especially if you’re on any pain medications.
- 5-hydroxytryptamine (5-HT) receptors: these control the release of other neurotransmitters and hormones in the body.
- Glycine receptor: this receptor has a key role in improving your sleep quality.
By affecting multiple sites and receptors in the body, it could be said that general anesthesia induces what is similar to a reversible medically-desired state similar to an induced coma. In other words, having General Anaesthesia temporarily turns off your reflexes and you’re your typical responses to pain.
The outcome of having General Anaesthesia?
It gives you a comfortable journey through the actual SURGERY part of having a cosmetic surgery procedure.
Everyone asks how long you can be kept under General Anesthesia for. One key reason you DON’T want to stay under General Anesthesia too long is that the lack of movement may increase your risks of getting a DVT (deep vein thrombosis) during or just after your Surgery. This is another reason why it is so important that you choose a locally based, Australian Surgeon for your Cosmetic Surgery.
What’s the Longest Anyone has been under General Anesthesia?
It is written that the longest time anyone spent under General Anesthesia occurred In February of 1951, when a female patient (Gertrude Levandowski of Michigan, USA), underwent a 96-hour surgery procedure for the removal of a giant OVARIAN CYST. That length of time made her procedure the world’s longest surgery on record that we could find at the writing of this blog.
Whilst her operation was considered successful, according to most research and Surgeons, the safest length of time to remain under general anesthesia is nowhere near that long. The length of time ‘on the operating table’ under General Anesthesia, often determines the level of risk for postoperative complications. It can also impact on the recovery period regardless of a patient’s ages.
Some people also find that going under anesthetic for long operations can impact their mood following surgery. However, this may also relate to the fact that surgery recovery involves a lot of downtime, which can lead to self-reflection, or self-questioning, all of which can impact your mood. Especially if you’ve had a lot of significant life events, disappointments, change or loss.
Safe Limits Regarding General Anesthesia for Cosmetic Surgery
In order to avoid unwanted outcomes, most of our Melbourne Specialist Surgeons recommend no more than 5 to 8 hours for undergoing general anesthesia during surgery in a hospital setting.
We aim to help you understand;
- The surgery procedure
- The anesthetic
- The post-op recovery
- When you can expect to see the maturation of your incision scars
- And, your ‘final’ surgery result after healing from the post-op recovery phase.
If you choose our team, you’ll likely feel more confident knowing that your cosmetic surgery procedure won’t only be to an extremely high standard but it will also be carried out with a high level of safety prioritization and quality care at all stages of your journey, by a team of highly experienced Surgeons with an eye for natural-looking, harmonious and long-lasting surgery results.
Want to learn more about getting the breast augmentation, tummy tuck, facelift or rhinoplasty surgery you’ve always wanted? We can help you learn about surgery’s risks and rewards, and help get you the information you need to make the right choice for you.
Simply fill out an enquiry form below to ask about scheduling an OBLIGATION-FREE consultation with one of our Specialist FRACS qualified Plastic Cosmetic Surgeons in Melbourne or with one of our Sydney colleagues.
Consultation fees for surgical consultations do apply, and a GP referral may be helpful for claiming any applicable Medicare Rebates on your consultation.
NOTE: Waiting lists to see our Specialists are not uncommon, so book now to avoid scheduling disappointment.
Medical References and Further Reading:
- Paul G. Barash (2009). Clinical Anesthesia. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins. pp. 102–. ISBN 978-0-7817-8763-5.
- Norris McWhirter (1 November 1987). Guinness Book of World Records, 1988. Sterling Publishing Company. ISBN 978-0-8069-6598-7.
- Neil Roy Connelly; David G. Silverman (2009). Review of Clinical Anesthesia. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins. pp. 238–. ISBN 978-0-7817-8951-6.
What to do next?
Our Patient Liaison Team can assist with any questions you may have when considering a procedure. You can send in an enquiry form below or call our Melbourne Clinic between 8am-6pm, Monday – Friday.
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