What Does an Anesthesiologist Do?

Medically Reviewed by Jabeen Begum, MD on November 14, 2023
5 min read

 Anesthesiologists are doctors who give you medicine to prevent pain and, if necessary, make sure you sleep through surgery.  

Anesthesiologists don't just give anesthesia in the operating room. Other anesthesiologist responsibilities include giving pain relief if you have a condition like back pain or cancer. And after surgery, they sometimes help control pain after you get home, too.

Anesthesia is a treatment that keeps you from feeling pain. It can be used during surgery, procedures such as biopsies, and dental work.  

Doctors use drugs called anesthetics in this treatment. 

An anesthetic might be injected into your veins, or it might be a gas you inhale. A local anesthetic can be a lotion rubbed on your body, a patch, or eyedrops

Anesthesiology is an area of medicine that deals with anesthesia, pain management, and handling certain life-threatening emergencies.

Subspecialties of anesthesiology 

These include: 

  • Heart (cardiac anesthesia)
  • Brain and spinal cord (neuroanesthesia)
  • Childbirth (obstetric anesthesia)
  • Children (pediatric anesthesia)
  • Pain management
  • Emergency surgery (critical care medicine)

Anesthesiologist vs. anesthetist 

An anesthesiologist is a doctor who's graduated from medical school. An anesthetist, sometimes called a certified registered nurse anesthetist or CRNA, is a nurse with advanced training in anesthesia. They give anesthesia, and are supervised by doctors. Another professional you might find is a certified anesthesiologist assistant, or CAA. Their job is similar to that of an anesthetist, but they don't have medical or nursing degrees.

A medical doctor (MD) or a doctor of osteopathy (DO) can become an anesthesiologist. After medical school, the next step is an internship, then a hospital residency in anesthesia. They may also have extra training in a subspecialty. 

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.

How long does it take to be an anesthesiologist? 

It takes 12 to 14 years to become an anesthesiologist. That's 4 years of undergraduate school, 4 years of medical school, a 1-year internship, a 3-year residency in anesthesia, and possibly another 1 to 2 years of specialty training called a fellowship. Altogether, anesthesiologists can have 12,000 to 16,000 hours of training.

Anesthesiologists can give you several types of pain relief:

General anesthesia. It puts you "to sleep" during surgery. You may get this for a variety of procedures, including major operations. You get medicine in a needle in a vein (IV) to put you to sleep and then breathe the medicine in through a mask or 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. 

Local anesthesia. It numbs a smaller area where you'll have surgery.  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. This is a kind of regional anesthesia that can be used for surgery, but also to treat pain from injuries and medical conditions. 

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 may meet with your anesthesiologist and nurse anesthetist in the days or weeks before your surgery. Or you may see them for the first time right before the procedure. 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.

You may have side effects like nausea or chills from the anesthesia. The doctor can give you medicine for those.

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.

Surgeries that require general anesthesia include: 

  • Head or back surgery
  • Lung surgery
  • Heart surgery
  • Procedures involving your belly

You might have regional anesthesia for surgery on your: 

  • Hip
  • Knee
  • Hand
  • Feet

An epidural, used to block pain during childbirth, is another kind of regional anesthesia.

Sedation is used for: 

  • Procedures to diagnose problems, like a colonoscopy, upper endoscopy, bronchoscopy, or cystoscopy
  • Dental surgery
  • Reconstructive surgery
  • Minor repair of broken bones

You could get local anesthesia for a procedure to remove skin cancer , when you're getting stiches, or for dental procedures like a filling or a crown.

You'll see an anesthesiologist to manage your pain during surgery. After surgery, this doctor will make sure you're recovering from being asleep and help you deal with side effects. An anesthesiologist also can help you manage pain from an ongoing condition like cancer or a back problem. The type of anesthesia you get depends on the procedure. Some surgeries require you to be asleep. For others, you just need to be relaxed. Sometimes you only need a part of your body numb.


What exactly does an anesthesiologist do? 

An anesthesiologist is a doctor who provides pain relief during a surgery and also can help manage continuing pain from conditions such as cancer or back problems.

How long does it take to be an anesthesiologist? 

Including college, medical school and further training, it takes 12 to 14 years to become an anesthesiologist.