Absent From Pain

Anesthesiology eliminates your ability to feel pain or sensation.

Most of us think of anesthesiology as the medical specialty that “puts you to sleep,” but it’s really all about pain relief.

Anesthesia makes possible some of modern medicine’s greatest miracles. Can you imagine undergoing surgery without it? The father of Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes is generally credited with bringing the term into popular use in 1846, though references to anesthesia can be traced back to 1741. The term is based on a Greek word meaning “lack of sensation.”

“Anesthesiology uses medicine to eliminate your ability to feel pain or other sensations,” explains John Williams, MD, the Peter and Eva Safar Professor and chair of the University of Pittsburgh’s Department of Anesthesiology. “Your anesthesiologist partners with your surgeon to manage your vital functions before, during, and after surgery. Everything from breathing, heart rate and rhythm, blood pressure, body temperature, blood clotting, and fluid loss is consistently monitored.”

A Team of Professionals

Anesthesiologists are physicians who complete four years of residency after finishing medical school. Their extensive preparation includes training in cardiology, critical care medicine, internal medicine, pharmacology, and surgery. Many also pursue subspecialty training in such areas as pain medicine, and pediatric, cardiothoracic, or obstetric anesthesia.

In today’s complex surgical suites, anesthesiologists lead an entire team of skilled professionals, which can include a certified registered nurse anesthetist, resident physician, student nurse anesthetist, and anesthetist assistant. “It’s a true team effort, with each member playing a distinct role in delivering patient care,” says Dr. Williams.

Anesthesia’s role in health care extends far beyond the operating room. Anesthesiologists offer pain management in a variety of settings, enhancing the daily lives of patients with chronic diseases or complex medical conditions.

Getting to Know You

For minor operations, you’ll typically meet your anesthesiologist at the hospital, shortly before surgery. For major surgeries, you will be asked to participate in a pre-surgery consultation. “With patients who live at a distance, we’re now using telemedicine to conduct pre-op visits,” says Dr. Williams. “It allows us to get to know you, address your questions and concerns, review options, and determine if any additional tests or consultations are needed.”

What to Tell Your Anesthesiologist

Prior to surgery, you’ll be asked to provide information about yourself. “Be candid and comprehensive. What you share will be held in strict confidence,” advises Dr. Williams. Be sure to include the following:

  • Previous reactions you or other family members have had to anesthesia
  • Any food, medicine, or latex allergies you have
  • Prescription, over-the-counter, or herbal medications you take
  • Your use of alcohol or recreational drugs

Did You Know?

There are four basic categories of anesthesia:

  • Local: Numbs a small, specific part of your body
  • Regional: Numbs a larger area of your body, usually below the waist
  • Twilight: Sedates and provides pain relief
  • General: Renders you unconscious
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