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Anesthesia is a key discipline in the world of medicine and healthcare today. It took hundreds of years to develop, and only up until about 1800, there was no effort made by doctors to relieve people’s pain during surgery.

Individual doctors had methods to dull feeling for their patients. Compression or cold could be used to numb limbs and therefore keep people from feeling anything. Some doctors physically knocked their patients out. However, most simply performed surgery as quickly as possible. Battlefield surgeries and procedures in the operating room were often very similar.

There were isolated attempts over the years to spare patients pain. However, dosages were not understood very well. Ether and chloroform sometimes killed people. Ether is also flammable, which created another risk.

Opium was well known as a pain killer, but was expensive and addictive. Many people, including the writer Fanny Burney, underwent surgery without anesthesia. All she had to dull the sensations was one alcoholic drink, a cordial, beforehand.

In Burney’s case, she underwent surgery for breast cancer with no anesthesia. This was highly traumatic for her. In a famous letter, she recounts incredible pain. Burney describes seeing the instruments, closing her eyes, and screaming throughout the entire procedure.

Medical knowledge took a long time to develop in the Western world. For example, the way blood circulates was not understood until the 17th century. Prior to William Harvey’s demonstration, theories included that blood flowed in tides. This is just one example of how little was known.

In the 1800s, the advent of hypnosis or “mesmerism,” named for Franz Anton Mesmer, offered another solution. In the 19th Century, some people underwent surgeries while hypnotized. Around the same time, dentists began to take advantage of the discovery of nitrous oxide, or laughing gas. That profession adopted this intervention more quickly than most doctors did.

The way drugs were metabolized was not understood until the 20th century. Even then, dosages could be tricky. Some people would go under anesthesia and never wake up. Over the past century or so, anesthesia has advanced rapidly. This has been a big change for the healthcare field. It has made surgery seem less risky to most people, altering the way they perceive medicine and doctors.

Modern anesthesia requires at least two drugs. One paralyzes the body, and one keeps the patient unconscious. Today’s anesthesia is administered by a doctor with a specialized degree. Although it is far safer, there is the chance that a patient could be paralyzed, but not have feeling dulled. This is perhaps one of the scariest things about healthcare today.

While this outcome is thankfully rare, it is possible for a modern day patient to feel as much pain as Fanny Burney did hundreds of years ago. The only difference is that paralyzed, these patients cannot even give vent to their pain.