Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 08/2023

Anesthesia is medicine that keeps you from feeling pain during certain medical procedures. There are several different types of anesthesia. The type you receive depends on the procedure and your general health.

This article explains the different types of anesthesia you may need during cancer surgery. Learn more about the different types of cancer surgery and what to expect when having surgery.

What are the different types of anesthesia?

The different types of anesthesia include:

Local anesthesia. Local anesthesia numbs the area so you do not feel it. It can be given as an injection, or a shot, or topically as a cream.

Local anesthesia is usually used for small procedures. For example, you might get it for a biopsy, where the doctor takes a small sample of tissue. The area may stay numb for up to several hours. When you have local anesthesia, you may be alert and awake. Or, your doctor might give you some additional medicine to make you relaxed and sleepy. This is called sedation (see below).

Regional anesthesia. Regional anesthesia blocks pain in a certain area of the body. Regional anesthesia can be given through an injection or through a vein (intravenous; IV). This is given through a flexible tube that is inserted into a vein. Regional anesthesia also relieves pain after the procedure. This makes recovery easier. You may also receive sedation (see below).

There are 2 types of regional anesthesia:

  • A peripheral nerve block is done for your limbs or extremities, such as a hand, arm, leg, or foot. It blocks feeling in the nerves to these areas.

  • An epidural or spinal anesthetic blocks pain in your abdomen or lower body, including the back, pelvis, rectum, and legs.

Sedation. Sedation is medicine that makes you feel relaxed and sleepy. You may take a pill or liquid by mouth, or get it through an IV. Your doctor might give you sedation along with local or regional anesthesia. It can make you more comfortable and reduce pain.

There are 3 levels of sedation:

  • Minimal sedation makes you relaxed. If you feel anxious or nervous, it helps you feel comfortable during a test or procedure. This level means you are awake during the procedure and you can talk.

  • Moderate sedation reduces pain and makes you less aware of things around you. Another name is "conscious sedation." This level means you might be able to talk and respond to questions, or you might doze off. You might have this type of sedation for a minor surgery, along with local or regional anesthetic. You might not remember the procedure afterwards.

  • Deep sedation makes you unaware of the procedure. This level means you usually cannot talk or answer questions. You may receive pain medication to reduce any discomfort. You might also have drugs that affect your memory so you do not remember the procedure. Doctors might give you oxygen or a breathing tube to help you keep breathing well during deep sedation.

General anesthesia. During general anesthesia, you are unconscious. It is similar to being asleep, but you only wake up when the anesthesia medicines wear off. You may also receive medication to wake you up. Doctors use general anesthesia for major surgical procedures.

Who gives anesthesia?

A trained medical professional gives anesthesia. Who gives you your anesthesia depends on the type of anesthesia you will receive.

Anesthesiologist. An anesthesiologist is a doctor who specializes in giving anesthesia and caring for people who have it. If you are receiving certain types of anesthesia, such as general anesthesia, an anesthesiologist will lead a team of professionals who will monitor you while you are having the procedure.

Surgeon or other doctor. In some cases, the doctor performing the surgery may administer the anesthesia themselves. This is especially true if it is topical local anesthesia.

Certified registered nurse anesthetist. This is a registered nurse with specialized training in anesthesia. You might see the letters CRNA after their name.

Anesthesia assistant. This is a health care professional with a college degree and additional training in anesthesia care. They specialize in taking care of patients during and after anesthesia.

How to get ready for anesthesia

Your anesthesiologist may meet with you before you have general anesthesia and ask you some questions. These questions might be in a printed list, or someone might ask you the questions. These may include:

  • Questions about your health, now and in the past

  • What medicines, vitamins, and herbal supplements you take, including prescription and over-the-counter products

  • Any allergies, including to foods, medication, and items like latex

  • Any anesthesia you had before, and your experience with it

  • Use of other drugs, alcohol, and tobacco

  • Any loose teeth or dental bridges. This is because some types of anesthesia may involve movement around your mouth, such as putting in a tube. Your team will want to protect your teeth.

It is important to answer these questions honestly and correctly. The information helps your health care team give you anesthesia as safely as possible.

You may also need blood tests or other examinations before general anesthesia. This helps make your experience with anesthesia safer.

Before your surgery, it is important to follow your health care team's instructions exactly. You will probably need to go without eating for at least 6 hours before general anesthesia. Do not eat or drink anything unless your doctor tells you it is OK to do so. You may be able to drink clear liquids until a certain time.

You might need to stop taking your regular medicines before general anesthesia. Some medicines can affect the anesthesia or your procedure. Ask your doctor which medicines you should take and which ones you should not take. Also, make sure you follow their instructions for starting the medicine again.

Learn more about how to get ready for cancer surgery.

What happens during general anesthesia?

You will receive general anesthesia in 1 of these ways:

  • Through an IV line placed in a vein in your arm

  • Through a face mask or tube in your windpipe, so you will breathe in the medicine

  • Both of these methods

Anesthesia often begins to take effect in less than 1 minute.

Your health care team will place devices on your body before you have general anesthesia. For example, you might have a small clip on your finger to measure the amount of oxygen in your blood. The devices help your team keep track of your body temperature, blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing. The team will make sure these are all OK during the procedure. They will also keep track of your anesthesia level to make sure you do not wake up until the right time.

The anesthesiologist will stop the anesthesia when your procedure is over. They might also give you medicines to help you wake up. Next, you will go to a recovery area. Specially trained nurses will take care of you as you wake up completely.

What are the possible side effects of general anesthesia?

Anesthesia is safe for most people. But, like with any medication, you might have side effects. They can include:

  • Grogginess, sleepiness, or confusion

  • Nausea or vomiting

  • Chills

  • Itching

  • Blurry vision

  • Dry mouth or sore throat, especially if a tube was needed to help you breathe during the procedure

These side effects are generally temporary. Your health care team will help you manage them. The nurse in the recovery room is there to watch how you are waking up and will decide if and when to offer you liquids.

Rarely, there are serious complications of anesthesia. These can include serious injury and death. The risks may be higher for older adults, especially people with severe heart or lung disease.

Another rare side effect is anesthesia awareness. This means a person briefly wakes up during the procedure. It happens in 1 or 2 out of every 1,000 people. Risk factors for anesthesia awareness are:

  • Having an emergency surgery

  • Using certain medicines for a long time, including tranquilizers, opioids, and medicines called anti-convulsants

  • Heart and blood vessel problems

  • Daily alcohol use

  • Smoking, now or in the past

What is recovery from general anesthesia like?

It takes some time to get back to normal after general anesthesia. Your health care team will decide how long you need to be monitored after your surgery, depending on the type of surgery.

Your reaction speed and judgment may be slow or different for a while after anesthesia. Avoid these activities for at least 24 hours after waking up:

  • Driving a car

  • Operating other heavy machinery

  • Making important decisions

Ask your health care team when you can start taking your regular medication(s) again. Also ask about guidance on foods or drinks. For instance, you may have trouble digesting heavy foods. Start by drinking liquids and then eating light foods until you feel normal again. Examples of light foods include:

  • Broth or soup

  • Tea or black coffee

  • Yogurt

  • Gelatin

  • Toast, crackers, or plain rice

If you do not think you are recovering well from anesthesia, contact your health care team right away.

Questions to ask your health care team

You may want to ask these questions before anesthesia during your cancer treatment:

  • Do I have a choice about the type of anesthesia I have?

  • What are the risks and complications of each type of anesthesia available for this procedure?

  • How can I prevent or lower risks and complications?

  • Do I need any tests before having anesthesia?

  • Can a family member come with me to the operating room?

  • Can I bring any electronic devices or headphones to the operating room?

  • What care will I have before, during, and after my procedure?

  • When can my family see me in the recovery room?

  • Are there activities I should avoid when recovering from this anesthesia?

  • What should I eat and drink during my recovery?

  • When can I take my regular medication again after my medical procedure?

Related Resources

What is Cancer Surgery?

What to Expect When Having Surgery

Side Effects of Surgery

Video: Preparing for a Medical Procedure During Cancer Diagnosis and Treatment

How Cancer Surgery Affects People Age 65 and Older

More Information

MedlinePlus: Anesthesia