Everything was going so well today. Your hair was doing that thing you like, there was no line at the coffee place, and you got to work on a little early. You even found out you're getting that promotion over Karen. Not bad! Now you're driving home, and you suddenly feel a sharp pain in your lower abdomen. Was it something you ate? Before you can think about it too much, the sharp pain hits again. By the time you get home, you're sweating. You check your temperature. A fever is setting in.
Finally, you think, "better safe than sorry." Time to put that health insurance to use.
And that's how you got here. Lying back in a hospital bed, a heart monitor beep-beep-beeping by your side, and a doctor explaining your imminent surgery. They're going to take your appendix out. You might be scared about what happens if you wake up during surgery, but lucky you, there's a drug to keep that from happening. You're going to go under general anesthesia, and by the time you wake up, you'll be right as rain. But exactly what happens when you go under? And, aside from that appendix getting taken out - or whatever your particular surgery may be - what happens to your body in anesthesia?
Being put under general anesthesia has four stages, three of which most people go through, and one of which you want desperately to avoid. The first of these stages is called induction.
When anesthesia is administered, you will have a short period of time after the effects hit you before you fall unconscious. Your head will feel strange, like things don't quite make sense, and you're likely to feel very confused. You may also notice a tingling or feeling of lightness all over your body, especially in your extremities.
Most of all, you will notice that you do not feel pain. This lack of pain, or analgesia, happens just before you lose consciousness, and it's a sign that the drug is beginning to work.
As you enter stage two, known as the excitement stage, some pretty weird stuff is going to happen to your body. You'll enter a state of amnesia, so you won't remember any of this happening, and this phase is very short. However, it does happen, and it involves your body absolutely freaking out.
As the foreign substance starts to interfere with your normal bodily functions, such as thinking, breathing, moving, and feeling, your brain has a moment where it realizes something is wrong. It tries to "save" you by reacting to the anesthesia all at once, in some rather violent ways. Your body will twitch, your breathing will change rapidly from fast to slow, and your heart rate may spike or plummet. You may gag or become nauseous, and you may vomit if the stage lasts too long. Don't worry though, there should be somebody watching you very closely, and the stage will be over in moments.
Stage three is the most important phase, called "surgical anesthesia." If you're one of the 60,000 patients who are subjected to surgical anesthesia each day, there's a little more going on than just simply "going to sleep." In fact, you don't drift into an unconscious state at all. You're actually sent into a coma.
While it may seem like being "unconscious" and "in a coma" are basically the same thing, there's actually a big difference between the two. Studies have shown that while unconscious, the mind still displays three stages of non-REM sleep on EEG readings. In the case of being put under anesthesia, the mind actually doesn't display these readings, which means you're at a much deeper level of sleep than one could naturally fall into.
Once under anesthesia, the drugs work by effectively shutting down the patient's nervous system. For local anesthesia, such as Novocain, the drug acts as a pain killer by blocking the nerves that send signals to the brain, so it can't register that things hurt.
General anesthesia takes it a step further. The drug goes to your brain, where it slows your responses to certain stimuli, even shutting off the parts of your brain that understand and respond to pain. In short, your brain is just working so slowly and is so impaired, it's not receiving or responding to any signals from your nervous system. Your heart rate won't rise, you won't panic, and you'll (thankfully) have no memory of the experience.