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Feeling No Pain: The World of Anesthesia

I’m Steve Ember with the VOA Special English Health Report.

Anesthesia is used during operations and other medical procedures to block pain signals from traveling through the nervous system. The kind of anesthesia that patients receive depends on their condition and the kind of procedure they need.

Local anesthesia is used to make a small area of the body lose feeling. Usually, local anesthesia is for minor procedures, like fixing a tooth or closing a wound. The person remains fully awake.

Regional anesthesia is used to block pain in a large area of the body. For example, when a woman is giving birth, she might request an epidural anesthesia. It is injected into the fluid in the spine. It acts on the lower half of the body.

General anesthesia makes a person fall asleep. This is known as being "put under." The drugs are injected into the blood or breathed as gas. General anesthesia also blocks memory.

People are not supposed to remember an operation when they wake up. In rare cases, they do. The Mayo Clinic says patients may have a sense of their surroundings during about one-fifth of one percent of all operations. It says they generally do not feel pain, but may wish to talk to a mental health provider if the memories trouble them.

An anesthesiologist is a doctor specially trained to give anesthesia. During an operation, the anesthesiologist will observe the patient’s heart rate, blood pressure and amount of oxygen in the blood. A breathing tube may be put into the person's windpipe. The tube is connected to a respirator machine.

There are, of course, risks to anesthesia. People can have different reactions to the drugs. Mistakes can happen. But medical experts say the safety of anesthesia has greatly improved.

The Mayo Clinic says not too long ago, one in ten thousand cases resulted in death. Now, it says, the number is one in two hundred fifty thousand.

The experts say everyone's experience with anesthesia is different. To reduce the risks, the Mayo Clinic says open communication is important among the patient and the doctors before an operation.

Patients can expect questions like: What is your current health? What medications do you take? Do you smoke or drink alcohol? Do you know if you have any allergies to foods or medicines? And what experiences have you had in the past with anesthesia?

This VOA Special English Health Report was written by Jill Moss. Our reports are online at I’m Steve Ember.