The purpose of anesthesia can be distilled down to three basic goals or endpoints:
- Hypnosis (a temporary loss of consciousness and with it a loss of memory. In a pharmacological context, the word hypnosis usually has this technical meaning, in contrast to its more familiar lay or psychological meaning of an altered state of consciousness not necessarily caused by drugs—see hypnosis).
- Analgesia (lack of sensation which also blunts autonomic reflexes) muscle relaxation
- Different types of anesthesia affect the endpoints differently. Regional anesthesia, for instance, affects analgesia; benzodiazepine-type sedatives (used for sedation, or “twilight anesthesia”) favor amnesia; and general anesthetics can affect all of the endpoints. The goal of anesthesia is to achieve the endpoints required for the given surgical procedure with the least risk to the patient.
To achieve the goals of anesthesia, drugs act on different but interconnected parts of the nervous system. Hypnosis, for instance, is generated through actions on the nuclei in the brain and is similar to the activation of sleep. The effect is to make people less aware and less reactive to noxious stimuli.