What is the Difference Between Sedation and General Anesthesia?

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Sedation, together with analgesia, amnesia and muscle paralysis, is the end result of general anesthesia, which is an induced, reversible and controlled loss of consciousness. Sedation, on its own, is the depression of awareness, whereby a patient response to external stimuli becomes limited. Sedation may be minimal, moderate or deep.

Minimal sedation is given only to relieve anxiety, with very little effect on patient awareness, while moderate sedation depresses consciousness, but leaves the patient capable of responding to external stimuli (tactile or verbal). In deep sedation, the patient only responds to painful or repeated stimuli.

In most forms of anesthesia, patients are pre-medicated prior to surgery to help them relax. The most commonly used drugs for this process are benzodiazepines. Other drugs are administered based on the necessities that are unique to that patient. For instance, a patient at risk for gastroesophageal reflux may receive drugs to counter that potential problem. Induction anesthesia is given in general anesthesia with drugs that put the patient to sleep and once these drugs begin to wear off, maintenance anesthesia is administered. Towards the end of the surgery these drugs are stopped and patients are given agents to reverse the effects of the muscle paralysis.

Anaesthesia - Deep sedation

Sedation vs. General Anesthesia

While both sedation and general anesthesia are forms of anesthesia, and sedation is a component of general anesthesia, they are different in several respects. Patients under general anesthesia have a complete loss of consciousness. This means that the patient will not feel, hear or remember anything. In order to achieve this loss of consciousness, a mixture of agents is necessary. In contrast, a state somewhere between being very sleepy, being relaxed in consciousness, and yet not unconscious, characterizes sedation. The patients will not feel pain, but are aware of what is going on around them.

As an advantage, the adverse effects that may be associated with general anesthesia are avoided with sedation. Moreover, patients maintain their natural physiological reflexes and are capable of breathing on their own.

Anaesthesia - General anaesthetic

This does not mean, however, that respiratory support may not be needed in some instances with sedation. In fact, some anesthesiologists may prefer general anesthesia, because it allows them to have complete control of the airway, thereby eliminating the need to worry about patient oxygenation. Nonetheless, the recovery period from sedation is typically quicker than with general anesthesia.

Cardiovascular function is usually unaffected or maintained throughout the various stages of sedation. In contrast, it is usually impaired with general anesthesia and careful monitoring is mandatory. In both cases, patients are required to fast several hours prior to their operation. The standard fasting duration is six hours. Clear fluids may be consumed no later than two hours prior to surgery.

Technically, light sedation may be given after a two-hour fast, but this is not recommended, especially in instances where the duration of the surgical procedure is unpredictable and may last for considerably longer than planned and general anesthesia becomes necessary.  


Further Reading

Last Updated: Dec 29, 2022

Dr. Damien Jonas Wilson

Written by

Dr. Damien Jonas Wilson

Dr. Damien Jonas Wilson is a medical doctor from St. Martin in the Caribbean. He was awarded his Medical Degree (MD) from the University of Zagreb Teaching Hospital. His training in general medicine and surgery compliments his degree in biomolecular engineering (BASc.Eng.) from Utrecht, the Netherlands. During this degree, he completed a dissertation in the field of oncology at the Harvard Medical School/ Massachusetts General Hospital. Dr. Wilson currently works in the UK as a medical practitioner.


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  1. Alex Fiumi Alex Fiumi Italy says:

    I find it absolutely useless to publish such an article!
    You may be an enthusiast of your profession but this does not give you the right to fill up the web with useless garbage. Either you are fully aware oof the content you publish or... please, give-up!

  2. Caroline Frank Caroline Frank United Kingdom says:

    A poor translation is not the fault of the author it is the fault of translation software.  In fact the article was very interesting and well written, and having had general anaesthesia today I wanted to no more about it.
    I would argue you stop 'filling up the web' with your ill informed and pretty pointless comments.

The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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