What Are the Risks of General Anesthesia?

anesthesia risks
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The development of anesthetics for surgical procedures was a great medical advancement. It allows surgical procedures to be conducted in a humane, controlled, and comfortable manner. Even for the illest patients, anesthesia is now the safest it has ever been. But that does not mean it comes without anesthesia risks.

Several negative effects can occur when you receive anesthesia for surgery or a treatment. Anesthesia causes a range of reactions, from moderate discomfort to potentially life-threatening consequences.

The risks associated with anesthesia depend on the type of anesthesia used, whether the surgery is elective or emergent, and the age and pre-existing conditions of the patient. Anesthesia itself carries a very low risk of long-term consequences or death. A patient’s general health and the surgical procedure itself determine any possible complications. 

At SPORT Orthopedics + Physical Therapy, we put our patients’ comfort and recovery first. If you have a busy lifestyle, you don’t want to be limited and healing for any longer than is absolutely required. As a result, it’s critical to get in touch with SPORT as soon as possible. Our top orthopedic surgeons in Dallas and physical therapists in Dallas have the training and experience to treat a wide range of ailments. Please contact 469-200-2832 or fill out our online intake form to make an appointment with us.

What Is General Anesthesia?

A mix of intravenous medicines and inhaled gases is commonly used for general anesthesia. Before surgery or other medical procedure, it is administered to put a patient in a sleep-like state. You don’t feel any pain under general anesthesia because you are fully unconscious. 

Though you will most likely feel as if you are asleep, general anesthesia is more than that. The anesthetized brain is unresponsive to pain signals or reflexes. That’s because the brain and body’s nerve signals are disrupted by general anesthesia. It keeps your brain from processing pain or recalling the events of your surgery.

A physician anesthesiologist or a nurse anesthetist is specially trained to provide anesthesia. They’re part of the anesthesia team keeping an eye on a patient during a procedure.

Why Is General Anesthesia Used?

Based on the sort of operation you’re having, your overall health, and your personal preferences, your anesthesiologist or nurse anesthetist, with your doctor, propose the best anesthesia choice for you. General anesthesia is often used for lengthy procedures, those that result in a lot of blood loss, compromise your breathing, or expose you to the cold.


So what are the risks of general anesthesia? General anesthesia is generally considered to be safe. Most people, even those with major medical conditions, can safely undergo general anesthesia.

Anesthesia itself carries a very low risk of long-term consequences, including death. Complications are more closely linked to a patient’s general health and surgical technique.

Postoperative disorientation, pneumonia, or even stroke and heart attack are more common in older persons or those with major medical issues. A number of factors can increase your risk of complications during surgery, including obesity, smoking, diabetes, and long-term health problems. 

These dangers are more commonly associated with surgery than with anesthetics.

Stages of General Anesthesia

stages of general anesthesia

Doctors have a monitoring method to track patients’ vital signs while under general anesthesia. This method was created before machines were invented to do this job. The system was separated into four anesthesia stages:

  • Stage 1: Induction – The first stage lasts from the time a patient takes the medication until they fall asleep. They can hold a conversation for a while, but they are calm. The ability to feel pain is lost and breathing becomes slow and regular.
  • Stage 2: Excitement or delirium This stage can be harmful. Uncontrollable movements, a rapid heartbeat, and uneven breathing are possible. You may vomit, causing you to choke or stop breathing.
  • Stage 3: Surgical anesthesia – Surgery is possible at this point. Without the use of equipment, you may stop breathing. Your eyes will stop moving and your muscles will relax. Until the procedure is completed, the anesthesiologist maintains you at this point.
  • Stage 4: Overdose – Your brain stops directing your heart and lungs to work if you have too much anesthetic. It can be fatal, though it’s uncommon with modern technology.

Complications of General Anesthesia

The majority of healthy persons withstand general anesthesia without difficulty. While this type of anesthetic is relatively safe, it is also the one that is most likely to cause side effects. The majority of adverse effects are minor and pass quickly. These include nausea, vomiting, temporary disorientation, chills, and a sore throat from the breathing tube.

There do exist certain more serious, but rare, risks:

Postoperative Delirium or Cognitive Dysfunction

In some patients, a condition known as postoperative cognitive dysfunction causes long-term memory and learning issues. It’s more common in the elderly since an aging brain has a harder time recovering from anesthesia. Additionally, those with heart illnesses, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, or who history of stroke are also at a higher risk.

Malignant Hyperthermia

Some people are born with a dangerous, possibly fatal reaction to anesthesia. It causes a rapid fever and muscle contractions during operation. If you or a family member has ever had a heat stroke or suffered from malignant hyperthermia during previous surgery, this could be a risk factor.

Breathing Problems During and After Surgery

Obstructive sleep apnea causes patients to stop breathing while they sleep, making them more vulnerable to anesthesia. Anesthesia used during surgery can cause the throat to close up in patients with this condition, which can result in irregular breathing and difficulty regaining consciousness. 

Additional Complications of General Anaesthesia Use

complications of general anesthesia use

Postoperative Nausea and Vomiting (PONV)

This is any nausea, vomiting, or retching in the first 24 to 48 hours after surgery. This occurs in up to 30% of patients after surgery.

Awareness Under Anesthesia

While under general anesthesia, a patient can be aware of their circumstances and experience discomfort. This is very rare. Because of the paralytics used to make surgery easier, the patient may not be able to move to alert others to their discomfort. 

Aspiration Pneumonitis

If a patient regurgitates stomach contents while under anesthesia, the reflexes that close the airway to prevent vomit from entering the lungs may not fully function. Aspiration pneumonia occurs when an infection develops in the inflamed area of the lungs after stomach contents are aspirated into the lungs.  

Peripheral Nerve Damage

Nerve compression causes peripheral nerve injury. This can occur with any type of operation. Extensive lengths of time in an exaggerated or awkward position are the most typical cause. The arm’s ulnar nerve (which runs along the little finger side of the forearm) and the lower leg’s peroneal nerve (which runs along the outside of the leg between the knee and ankle) are the most commonly impacted nerves. 

Complications of Regional Anesthesia (Nerve Blocks)

Nerve injury following a regional block is uncommon. It might be caused by direct needle injury to the nerve, or it can be linked to infection or hematoma formation after surgery. To avoid injury, the anesthesiologist will ask you whether you experience any intense or radiating pain when placing the needle or injecting the local anesthetic.

Complications of Brachial Plexus Anesthesia (Shoulder, Arm, Hand)

Developing a pneumothorax is a rare consequence of brachial plexus nerve blocks. This is when air is trapped between the lung and chest wall. Breathing difficulties, chest pain, and chronic coughing are symptoms.

Complications of Neuraxial Anesthesia (Spinal/Epidural)

complications of neuraxial anesthesia

The risk of major problems from neuraxial anesthesia is low. Exaggerated reactions in the body or needle/catheter insertion can cause complications. These include:

  • Pain
  • Post-dural-puncture headache
  • Bradycardia and hypotension 
  • Hypothermia
  • Failure of the respiratory system due to a “high spinal/block”
  • Spinal infection, including aseptic meningitis
  • Spinal or epidural hematoma
  • Nerve or spinal cord damage, possibly resulting in paralysis

Post-Dural-Puncture Headache

The leakage of cerebrospinal fluid after spinal anesthesia or unintended dural puncture with epidural injection causes a post-dural-puncture headache. It’s most common among young female obstetric patients. Nausea, vomiting, light sensitivity, blurred or “double” vision, headache, dizziness, or ringing in the ears are all possible symptoms. 

Hypotension (Low Blood Pressure)

Most patients getting spinal anesthetic, as well as many receiving epidurals, will have hypotension. It’s caused by the anesthetic/epidural’s blockage of the sympathetic nerves in the lower body, which is responsible for blood pressure regulation. It is typically not advisable for patients with past heart problems to receive this type of anesthetic.

High Spinal 

This happens when the level of anesthesia spreads into the upper thoracic or cervical areas. It also occurs when it moves into the base of the brain during a total spinal. It can be caused by using too much local anesthetic or the medicine spreading too much. A high block can also occur with epidural anesthesia, but it is less common.

As the spinal level rises, the nerves in the arms are affected with tingling in the fingers and a weakening of hand grips. Because the nerves that control the muscles used to breathe are affected, a patient may have shortness of breath. Patients may also experience bradycardia (slow heart rate), which can lead to hypotension (low blood pressure). If the anesthetic gets all the way to the base of the brain, it can shut off the breathing centers.

Complications of Local Anesthesia

Local anesthesia and regional anesthesia share similar complications. Bleeding, hematoma formation, bruising at the injection site, and infection are all possible because a needle is used. Nerves can be damaged by direct contact with a needle or an infection can develop. Pain at the injection site is a possibility, as well as the failure of the local anesthetic to provide sufficient anesthesia.

Contact SPORT Orthopedics + Physical Therapy Today

General anesthetics are critical in surgery and medicine as a whole. And while there are several risks and consequences associated with general anesthesia, it is relatively safe in general. The procedure itself is the greatest danger.

At SPORT Orthopedics + Physical Therapy, we are proud of the high level of treatment we provide to our patients. We offer a wide range of treatment choices, from bilateral knee replacement to wrist arthroscopy. Our Dallas orthopedic surgeons have years of experience diagnosing and treating a variety of ailments. Please contact 469-200-2832 or fill out our online intake form to make an appointment with us.