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Anesthesia, Local

Definition, Purpose, Description, Recommended dosage, Precautions, Side effects, Interactions

Local or regional anesthesia involves the injection or application of an anesthetic drug to a specific area of the body, as opposed to the entire body and brain as occurs during general anesthesia.


Local anesthetics are used to prevent patients from feeling pain during medical, surgical, or dental procedures. Over-the-counter local anesthetics are also available to provide temporary relief from pain, irritation, and itching caused by various conditions, such as cold sores, canker sores, sore throats, sunburn, insect bites, poison ivy, and minor cuts and scratches.

Types of surgery or medical procedures that regularly make use of local or regional anesthesia include the following:

  • biopsies in which skin or tissue samples are taken for diagnostic procedures
  • childbirth
  • surgeries on the arms, hands, legs, or feet
  • eye surgery
  • surgeries involving the urinary tract or sexual organs

Surgeries involving the chest and abdomen are usually performed under general anesthesia.

Local and regional anesthesia have advantages over general anesthesia in that patients can avoid some unpleasant side effects, can receive longer lasting pain relief, have reduced blood loss, and maintain a sense of psychological comfort by not losing consciousness.


Regional anesthesia typically affects a larger area than local anesthesia, for example, everything below the waist. As a result, regional anesthesia may be used for more involved or complicated surgical or medical procedures. Regional anesthetics are injected. Local anesthesia involves the injection into the skin or muscle or application to the skin of an anesthetic directly where pain will occur. Local anesthesia can be divided into four groups: injectable, topical, dental (non-injectable), and ophthalmic.

Local and regional anesthesia work by altering the flow of sodium molecules into nerve cells or neurons through the cell membrane. Exactly how the anesthetic does this is not understood, since the drug apparently does not bind to any receptor on the cell surface and does not seem to affect the release of chemicals that transmit nerve impulses (neurotransmitters) from the nerve cells. It is known, however, that when the sodium molecules do not get into the neurons, nerve impulses are not generated and pain impulses are not transmitted to the brain. The duration of action of an anesthetic depends on the type and amount of anesthetic administered.

Regional anesthesia

Types of regional anesthesia include:

  • Spinal anesthesia. Spinal anesthesia involves the injection of a small amount of local anesthetic directly into the cerebrospinal fluid surrounding the spinal cord (the subarachnoid space). Blood pressure drops are common but are easily treated.
  • Epidural anesthesia. Epidural anesthesia involves the injection of a large volume of local anesthetic directly into the space surrounding the spinal fluid sac (the epidural space), not into the spinal fluid. Pain relief occurs more slowly but is less likely to produce blood pressure drops. Also, the block can be maintained for long periods, even days.
  • Nerve blocks. Nerve blocks involve the injection of an anesthetic into the area around a nerve that supplies a particular region of the body, preventing the nerve from carrying nerve impulses to the brain.

Anesthetics may be administered with another drug, such as epinephrine (adrenaline), which decreases bleeding, and sodium bicarbonate to decrease the acidity of a drug so that it will work faster. In addition, drugs may be administered to help a patient remain calm and more comfortable or to make them sleepy.

Local anesthesia

INJECTABLE LOCAL ANESTHETICS. These medicines are given by injection to numb and provide pain relief to some part of the body during surgery, dental procedures, or other medical procedures. They are given only by a trained health care professional and only in a doctor's office or a hospital. Some commonly used injectable local anesthetics are procaine (Novocain), lidocaine (Dalcaine, Dilocaine, L-Caine, Nervocaine, Xylocaine, and other brands), and tetracaine (Pontocaine).

TOPICAL ANESTHETICS. Topical anesthetics, such as benzocaine, lidocaine, dibucaine, pramoxine, butamben, and tetracaine, relieve pain and itching by deadening the nerve endings in the skin. They are ingredients in a variety of nonprescription products that are applied to the skin to relieve the discomfort of sunburn, insect bites or stings, poison ivy, and minor cuts, scratches, and burns. These products are sold as creams, ointments, sprays, lotions, and gels.

DENTAL ANESTHETICS (NON-INJECTABLE). Some local anesthetics are intended for pain relief in the mouth or throat. They may be used to relieve throat pain, teething pain, painful canker sores, toothaches, or discomfort from dentures, braces, or bridgework. Some dental anesthetics are available only with a doctor's prescription. Others may be purchased without a prescription, including products such as Num-Zit, Orajel, Chloraseptic lozenges, and Xylocaine.

OPHTHALMIC ANESTHETICS. Other local anesthetics are designed for use in the eye. The ophthalmic anesthetics proparacaine and tetracaine are used to numb the eye before certain eye examinations. Eye doctors may also use these medicines before measuring eye pressure or removing stitches or foreign objects from the eye. These drugs are to be given only by a trained health care professional.

Recommended dosage

The recommended dosage depends on the type of local anesthetic and the purpose for which it is being used. When using a nonprescription local anesthetic, follow the directions on the package. Questions concerning how to use a product should be referred to a medical doctor, dentist, or pharmacist.


People who strongly feel that they cannot psychologically cope with being awake and alert during certain procedures may not be good candidates for local or regional anesthesia. Other medications may be given in conjunction with the anesthetic, however, to relieve anxiety and help the patient relax.

Local anesthetics should be used only for the conditions for which they are intended. For example, a topical anesthetic meant to relieve sunburn pain should not be used on cold sores. Anyone who has had an unusual reaction to any local anesthetic in the past should check with a doctor before using any type of local anesthetic again. The doctor should also be told about any allergies to foods, dyes, preservatives, or other substances.

Older people may be more sensitive to the effects of local anesthetics, especially lidocaine. This increased sensitivity may increase the risk of side effects. Older people who use nonprescription local anesthetics should be especially careful not to use more than the recommended amount. Children also may be especially sensitive to the effects of some local anesthetics, which may increase the chance of side effects. Anyone using these medicines on a child should be careful not to use more than the amount that is recommended for children. Certain types of local anesthetics should not be used at all young children. Follow package directions carefully and check with a doctor of pharmacist if there are any questions.

Regional anesthetics

Serious, possibly life-threatening, side effects may occur when anesthetics are given to people who use street drugs. Anyone who uses cocaine, marijuana, amphetamines, barbiturates, phencyclidine (PCP, or angel dust), heroin, or other street drugs should make sure their doctor or dentist knows what they have used.

Patients who have had a particular kind of reaction called malignant hyperthermia (or who have one or more family members who have had this problem) during or just after receiving a general anesthetic should inform their doctors before receiving any kind of anesthetic. Signs of malignant hyperthermia include fast and irregular heartbeat, very high fever, breathing problems, and muscle spasms or tightness.

Although problems are rare, some unwanted side effects may occur when regional anesthetics are used during labor and delivery. These anesthetics can prolong labor and increase the risk of Cesarean section. Pregnant women should discuss with their doctors the risks and benefits of being given these drugs.

Patients should not drive or operate other machinery immediately following a procedure involving regional anesthesia, due to numbness and weakness, or if local anesthesia also included drugs to make the patient sleep or strong pain medications. Injection sites should be kept clean, dry, and uncovered to prevent infection.

Injectable local anesthetics

Until the anesthetic wears off, patients should be careful not to injure the numbed area. If the anesthetic was used in the mouth, do not eat or chew gum until feeling returns.

Topical anesthetics

Unless advised by a doctor, topical anesthetics should not be used on or near any part of the body with large sores, broken or scraped skin, severe injury, or infection. They should also not be used on large areas of skin. Some topical anesthetics contain alcohol and should not be used near an open flame, or while smoking.

Anyone using a topical anesthetic should be careful not to get this medication in the eyes, nose, or mouth. When using a spray form of this medication, do not spray it directly on the face, but apply it to the face with a cotton swab or sterile gauze pad. After using a topical anesthetic on a child, make sure the child does not get the medicine in his or her mouth.

Topical anesthetics are intended for the temporary relief of pain and itching. They should not be used for more than a few days at a time. Check with a doctor if:

  • the discomfort continues for more than seven days
  • the problem gets worse
  • the treated area becomes infected
  • new signs of irritation, such as skin rash, burning, stinging, or swelling appear

Dental anesthetics (non-injectable)

Dental anesthetics should not be used if certain kinds of infections are present. Check package directions or check with a dentist or medical doctor if uncertain. Dental anesthetics should be used only for temporary pain relief. If problems such as toothache, mouth sores, or pain from dentures or braces continue, check with a dentist. Check with a doctor if sore throat pain is severe, lasts more than two days, or is accompanied by other symptoms such as fever, headache, skin rash, swelling, nausea, or vomiting.

Patients should not eat or chew gum while the mouth is numb from a dental anesthetic. There is a risk of accidently biting the tongue or the inside of the mouth. Also nothing should be eaten or drunk for one hour after applying a dental anesthetic to the back of the mouth or throat, since the medicine may interfere with swallowing and may cause choking. If normal feeling does not return to the mouth within a few hours after receiving a dental anesthetic or if it is difficult to open the mouth, check with a dentist.

Ophthalmic anesthetics

When anesthetics are used in the eye, it is important not to rub or wipe the eye until the effect of the anesthetic has worn off and feeling has returned. Rubbing the eye while it is numb could cause injury.

Side effects

Side effects of regional or local anesthetics vary depending on the type of anesthetic used and the way it is administered. Anyone who has unusual symptoms following the use of an anesthetic should get in touch with his or her doctor immediately.

Paralysis after regional anesthesia, for example an epidural or spinal block, is extremely rare, but can occur. Paralysis reportedly occurs even less frequently than deaths due to general anesthesia.

There is a small risk of developing a severe headache called a spinal headache following a spinal or epidural block. This headache is severe when the patient is upright and hardly felt when the patient lies down. Though rare, it can occur and can be treated by performing a blood patch, in which a small amount of the patient's own blood is injected into the area in the back where the anesthetic was injected. The blood clots and closes up any area that may have been leaking spinal fluid. Relief is almost immediate. Finally, blood clots or abscess can form in the back, but these are also readily treatable and so pose little risk.

A physician should be notified immediately if any of these symptoms occur:

  • large swellings that look like hives on the skin, in the mouth, or in the throat
  • severe headache
  • blurred or double vision
  • dizziness or lightheadedness
  • drowsiness
  • confusion
  • anxiety, excitement, nervousness, or restlessness
  • convulsions (seizures)
  • feeling hot, cold, or numb
  • ringing or buzzing in the ears
  • shivering or trembling
  • sweating
  • pale skin
  • slow or irregular heartbeat
  • breathing problems
  • unusual weakness or tiredness


Some anesthetic drugs may interact with other medicines. When this happens, the effects of one or both of the drugs may change or the risk of side effects may be greater. Anyone who receives a regional or local anesthetic should let the doctor know all other drugs he or she is taking including prescription drugs, nonprescription drugs, and street drugs (such as cocaine, marijuana, and heroin).



"Anesthetics." In Lippincott's Illustrated Reviews: Pharmacology, ed. Richard A. Harvey, et al. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1992.

Nancy Ross-Flanigan


Canker sore—A painful sore inside the mouth.

Cold sore—A small blister on the lips or face, caused by a virus. Also called a fever blister.

Epidural space—The space surrounding the spinal fluid sac.

Malignant hyperthermia—A type of reaction (probably with a genetic basis) that can occur during general anesthesia in which the patient experiences a high fever, the muscles become rigid, and the heart rate and blood pressure fluctuate.

Subarachnoid space—The space surrounding the spinal cord that is filled with cerebrospinal fluid.

Topical—Not ingested; applied to the outside of the body, for example to the skin, eye, or mouth.

Additional topics

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