What Is the Difference Between Anesthesia and Sedation?

A patient being given inhalational anaesthesia.
Article Details
  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 09 July 2014
  • Copyright Protected:
    Conjecture Corporation
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Anesthesia and sedation are related and may both be used during medical procedures, but they are designed for different functions. Anesthesia reduces sensitivity to pain and may make people insensate to pain, depending on the medication being used and the procedure involved. Sedation creates a more relaxed state and may even cause a patient to fall asleep during a procedure. The development of anesthesia and sedation was a major step in medical practice, making it possible to perform surgical procedures, manage pain more effectively, and manage patients who experienced anxiety and stress.

Often, anesthesia and sedation are combined in a procedure. The sedation is used to keep the patient comfortable or to cause the patient to completely fall asleep, while anesthesia prevents the patient from experiencing pain. Pain can become so severe that it may send the patient into shock — an undesirable turn of affairs — and pain can also interfere with a procedure as patients may twitch or cry out in response to the pain. Using anesthesia and sedation for pain management and to keep a patient comfortable will make it easier to focus, and can reduce complications for the patient.


Anesthesia may be used alone for minor procedures, in the form of a local or regional anesthetic. In this case, pain management is applied to the area of a body where the doctor will be working, like the region of the jaw surrounding a rotten tooth for a dental procedure. The area is probed before the procedure to confirm the patient cannot feel and the pain management will be adjusted as needed during the procedure.

If a patient is likely to develop anxiety and stress, sedation can be used to put the patient in a more relaxed mood. Many sedatives also contribute to memory loss, blurring memories of the procedure for the patient. Patients on sedatives may feel calmer. Depending on the level of sedation, patients can participate in the procedure and respond, or they may be largely insensate.

In general anesthesia, the patient is put to sleep with a combination of drugs designed to induce unconsciousness, prevent the patient from moving, and limit pain. The patient is carefully managed and a ventilator is used to breathe for the patient during the procedure as the patient cannot breathe independently. This high level anesthesia is supervised by an anesthesiologist or trained anesthesia technician.

In addition to being used in surgery and procedures, anesthesia and sedation are also useful for management of pain, stress, and tension in patients. Patients may be provided with sedatives to manage conditions like social anxiety disorder, for example, and patients with chronic pain conditions may receive treatments like nerve blocks to prevent transmission of pain signals.


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