Surgery would be a far more unpleasant experience if it weren't for anesthesiologists. These specialists give you medicine to prevent pain and, if necessary, make sure you sleep through your procedure.
Anesthesiologists don't just work in the operating room. They also give pain relief if you have an ongoing condition like back pain or cancer. And after surgery, they sometimes help you control pain after you get home, too.
What Kind of Training Do Anesthesiologists Have?
A medical doctor (MD) or a doctor of osteopathy (DO) can become an anesthesiologist. After medical school, the next step is a 1-year internship. That's followed by a 3-year hospital residency in anesthesia. Altogether, anesthesiologists can have 12,000 to 16,000 hours of training.
Doctors who complete their residency program can take the American Board of Anesthesiology (ABA) exam. This board certification means a doctor has gone above and beyond the basic standards in anesthesiology. Nearly 75% of anesthesiologists in the U.S. have this distinction.
Some anesthesiologists will do an extra year of training called a fellowship in one of these specialties:
- Heart (cardiac anesthesia)
- Brain and spinal cord (neuroanesthesia)
- Childbirth (obstetric anesthesia)
- Children (pediatric anesthesia)
- Pain management
- Emergency surgery (critical care medicine)
Anesthesiologists on the Job
Anesthesiologists can give you several different types of pain relief:
General anesthesia. It puts you "asleep" during surgery. You may get this for a variety of procedures, including major operations like knee replacement surgery or heart surgery. You get medicine in a needle in a vein (IV) to put you to sleep and then breathe the medicine in through a tube in your airway to keep you asleep.
Sedation. It helps you relax before and during your procedure. The effects can range from mild drowsiness to full sleep. You may not remember exactly what happened, but you won't be totally unconscious.
Regional anesthesia. This type of anesthesia numbs just the area of your body where you will have surgery. For example, doctors use this type of pain reliever for surgeries on one arm or leg.
Local anesthesia. It numbs a smaller area where you will have surgery. You could get this type of anesthesia for a procedure to remove skin cancer. The doctor may rub a cream or gel on your skin or give you a shot. You'll be awake, but you won't feel any pain.
Nerve block. It's a shot that relieves pain from injuries and medical conditions. Doctors often use it to treat pain in a certain area, such as the back.
When You'll See an Anesthesiologist
Your anesthesiologist, and likely a nurse anesthetist, will be with you before, during, and after your surgery to make sure that you're pain-free, relaxed, and safe the whole time.
Before surgery. You'll first meet with your anesthesiologist and nurse anesthetist in the days or weeks before your surgery. During this meeting, the doctor will:
- Ask about your medical history and any conditions, like diabetes or heart disease, that could make anesthesia risky
- Find out if you have allergies to any medicines
- Ask what medicines and supplements you take
- Discuss the procedure you're going to have
- Plan out the type of anesthesia you'll get during surgery
- Answer your questions
During surgery. You may get sedation before surgery to help you relax. Then, the anesthesiologist will give you medicine that makes you sleep and prevents pain. You'll get this medicine through a vein, a mask, or both.
If you have general anesthesia, the anesthesiologist will stay with you during the whole surgery. They'll check your breathing, heart rate, blood pressure, and other vital signs, and will adjust your anesthesia level if needed.
After surgery. Once you're in the recovery room, the anesthesiologist will again check your vital signs. The doctor will also make sure you're fully awake and you don't have any anesthesia-related problems.
The anesthesiologist may also help your surgeon decide when it's safe for you to go home. They may prescribe medicine to help manage any pain once you get home.