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Anesthesia is a loss of sensation or feeling. Anaesthesia is an alternate spelling (Brit).
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Anesthesia (or "anesthetics") is often used deliberately by doctors and dentists to block pain and other sensations during surgical procedures. Treatment for pre- or postoperative pain is called analgesia.
Local anesthesia is used to numb pain in a very localized region of your body. For example, novocaine injections are used to perform simple dental procedures such as fillings and for suturing small lacerations in one's finger.
Regional anesthesia blocks pain to a larger region of body and is generally divided into two types. A peripheral nerve block is injected near one or more nerves to numb regions such as a single arm or leg. This allows a doctor to perform surgery with lower risk than general anesthesia (below) in which the patient is unconscious. Spinal anesthesia involves injecting an anesthetic into the cerebrospinal fluid surrounding the spinal cord. Epidural anesthesia is similar, but the effects are usually limited to segments of the spine and, therefore, more specific parts of the body. Typical uses for these kinds of anesthesia are for outpatient knee surgeries and childbirth.
General anesthesia puts the patient into a carefully controlled and reversible state of unconsciousness. Patients are usually given a series of medications using intravenous drugs or inhaled gases to induce amnesia, analgesia, and sedation.
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Exposure to certain chemicals or anesthetics such as nitrous oxide may reduce your ability to feel pain. That may sound great, but this presents a serious hazard. Imagine having no sensations of pain in your everyday life - you might not notice that you have put your hand on a hot stove and suffered third degree burns until you smelled the charred flesh. Ugh!
If a substance has anesthetic effects, that should appear in Section 11 (toxicological information) of the Safety Data Sheet.
See also: analgesia, asphyxiant.
Additional definitions from Google and OneLook.
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