Crawford Long first used ether in 1842 to anesthetize a patient to remove a neck tumor, marking the beginning of the use of anesthesia during surgeries. To celebrate this occurrence, this day is now designated as National Doctor's Day.
Throughout history, people have sought ways to relieve suffering. Many substances that control pain were found serendipitously, sometimes by trial and error. As early as 4200 B.C., people discovered natural substances—often plants and plant roots—that could cause unconsciousness in animals and people, so they used them to relieve pain.
But it is only during the first half of the 19th century that people started testing chemical substances on patients for their use in medical surgery. Over the years, various substances were identified, and their effectiveness was compared. This work has led to an array of medicines that can numb pain locally or cause unconsciousness and decrease pain over the entire body.
There are two types of anesthetics, called local and general anesthetics. These substances work by preventing nerves from carrying pain signals to the brain. This way, the brain does not perceive pain.
Local anesthetics can be given by injection to numb parts of the body during surgery and dental procedures. General anesthetics are used during medical and surgical procedures that would be too painful to endure while awake. In addition to suppressing pain, as local anesthetics do, general anesthetics also induce a loss of consciousness that may feel like deep sleep.
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Excerpted with permission, ChemMatters
Copyright © 2010 American Chemical Society