What happens when you go under general anaesthetic?


Counting backwards from 10, you feel yourself slip into darkness – only to wake seemingly an instant later. Here are the compounds responsible for keeping you under.



“Going under” before a surgery is something for which we can thank modern medicine. Before anaesthesia entered theatres around the mid 19th century, surgeons would use alcohol, narcotics and the occasional knock to the head to take away some of the pain during surgery.

The video above by the Reactions team at the American Chemical Society explains the first general anaesthetic in 1846 was a chemical compound called diethyl ether, which was administered with an inhaler.

Today, combinations of different chemical compounds are administered by either an inhaler or needled into a vein.

But anaesthetics aren’t just about pain – they temporarily paralyse your body and give you amnesia so you have no recollection of the surgery.

And while scientists know anaesthesia does the job, they aren’t entirely sure how, but it has a lot to do with the broader concept of consciousness.

The video explains the current theory that these drugs intercept and cut off the signals neurotransmitters send between specific nerve cells in the brain, responsible for the brain’s responsiveness.

Sound dangerous? Too much of the drug can put you to sleep permanently, while too little can make you wake up.

Luckily medical professionals are by your side the whole way monitoring your vital signs to keep your consciousness at just the right level.

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Anthea Batsakis is a freelance journalist in Melbourne, Australia.
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