What Is a Nurse Anesthetist?

Medically Reviewed by Sabrina Felson, MD on July 17, 2023
3 min read

Nurse anesthetists are medical professionals who provide anesthesia, treatments that keep people from feeling pain during surgery or other medical procedures. They are also known as nurse anesthesiologists or certified registered nurse anesthetists (CRNAs). 

Nurse anesthetists and physician anesthetists (anesthesiologists) use the same methods to give anesthesia but take different educational paths. Studies have shown that treatments provided by nurse and physician anesthetists have the same levels of safety, care quality, and outcome.

Nurse anesthetists give medicine called anesthesia to keep you from feeling pain or anxiety during a medical procedure. The anesthesia will depend on the type and length of the procedure and your needs:

  • General anesthesia keeps you asleep during surgery so you don’t feel anything. Some of the medicines are breathed in through a tube or mask, while some are given by IV (a small needle inserted into a vein that delivers liquids to your body through a tube).
  • Regional anesthesia blocks feeling in a certain part of the body so you can’t feel anything in that area during a procedure. You may get a single shot, or a thin, flexible tube called a catheter may be placed in a vein to deliver anesthesia medicine throughout the procedure.
  • Sedation is a type of anesthesia usually given through an IV. Mild sedation makes you feel relaxed and drowsy so you aren’t anxious about a medical test or treatment. Moderate sedation helps you doze off, but you can awaken easily if needed. Deep sedation puts you to sleep so you have no awareness of the procedure. 

Before a medical procedure, your nurse anesthetist will tell you which type of anesthesia they plan to use and explain how it’s given, its risks, and any side effects. They may do a physical exam and ask about your medical history. 

Right before the procedure, the nurse anesthetist will start the anesthesia and monitor your vital signs (such as heart rate, body temperature, blood pressure, and breathing). They will stay with you throughout the procedure, continuing to watch your vital signs and adjusting the amount of anesthesia as needed to make sure you stay comfortable and safe.

After the procedure, your nurse anesthetist will stop the anesthesia and keep an eye on your vital signs and comfort level as you recover.

The education of a nurse anesthetist takes a minimum of 7 years and requires: 

●A bachelor’s degree in nursing (4 years) or other 4-year undergraduate degree plus nursing school

●The National Council Licensure Exam (nursing exam) and state licensure as a registered nurse

●At least 1 year of nursing experience in an intensive care unit (ICU) 

●A master’s degree or doctorate from nurse anesthesia program (2 to 4 years)

●The National Certification Examination

By the time they graduate from a nurse anesthesia program, CRNAs have an average of over 9,000 hours of experience. Throughout their career, they keep up their certification with continuing education courses, professional activities such as teaching or research, and performance assessments.

Nurse anesthetists provide pain management for:

Medical procedures and testing. CRNAs give anesthesia for surgeries ranging from minor procedures, such as the placement of ear tubes, through major operations, like hip replacement. This includes dental and plastic surgeries. They also provide sedation for medical tests such as colonoscopies, which might otherwise be uncomfortable.

Labor and delivery. Regional anesthesia can block much of the pain of labor and delivery while allowing the mother to stay awake and take part in the birthing process. A nurse anesthetist can place an epidural, a catheter inserted in the lower back, to give numbing medicine throughout labor and delivery. An epidural can sometimes be used for a C-section, as well.

Spinal anesthesia, a single injection of numbing medicine, is often given for planned C-sections. If there is a sudden emergency during labor, a nurse anesthetist may give general anesthesia.

Chronic pain. CRNAs work with people who have chronic pain to create and carry out a pain management plan. There are dozens of treatment options, including regional anesthesia, medications taken by mouth or applied to the skin, massage, relaxation techniques, and physical therapy.