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What is Regional Anesthesia?

By M.R. Anglin
Updated Feb 02, 2024
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Before anesthesia, a surgery would have to take place as quickly as possible because the patient could experience severe shock from the pain and trauma of being cut open. The development of anesthesia allowed surgeons to take more time to perform the necessary surgery with less risk of severely traumatizing the patient. Regional anesthesia is just one of the three types of anesthesia available; others are general and local anesthesia. Doctors use regional anesthesia to numb a significant part of a person’s body rather than put the patient entirely to sleep. Using regional anesthesia can help to keep post operative pain low and can help reduce blood loss and nausea.

Regional anesthesia is differentiated from the other types of anesthesia by how much of the body it affects. General anesthesia is used to put the patient entirely to sleep during a procedure, while local anesthesia only numbs a small portion of a person’s body. Regional anesthesia is able to numb whole sections of the body, such as arms or legs. Two types of regional anesthesia are available for use: spinal and epidural.

The epidural anesthetic may be most often linked to pregnant women delivering babies, but this isn’t always the case. An epidural is used to numb the lower body in cases such as Caesarian sections (C-sections) as well as procedures on the bladder and prostate. This regional anesthetic is administered by first numbing the site of the injection—which is usually the lower back—with a local anesthetic. A needle is then inserted between the vertebrae and into the epidural space. A catheter is placed in the region so the anesthesiologist can administer the right amount of anesthetic when he chooses.

Like the epidural, the spinal anesthetic is used to numb the lower parts of the body for procedures. The differences between the two include the way they're administered and that an epidural can also be used to numb the chest region, where the spinal anesthetic cannot. To administer a spinal anesthetic, the injection site is again numbed with a local anesthetic. The needle is then placed into the spinal fluid and the medication is administered. While under both types of regional anesthetics, the patient can choose to be awake during the surgery or asleep.

As with all medicines, there are risks associated with using regional anesthesia. For example, there is a risk of a person becoming paralyzed as a side-effect. Other complications include headache, infection, or death. The risk of these complications, however, is generally low. Typically, most patients wake up feeling groggy or disoriented, but are able to make a full recovery from their procedures.

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