Spinal anesthesia

This website resource describes what you can generally expect during spinal anesthesia at Vancouver General Hospital or UBC Hospital. Spinal anesthetics are very safe and effective methods of providing anesthesia for lower body surgery.

Related:   Patient guide to anesthesia   

Anesthesiologists are specialist doctors who have undergone many years of training to perform these procedures.

Your treating anesthesiologist will discuss what they believe is the best way to care for you during your procedure. 

In the preoperative area you’ll meet the anesthesiologist who will be responsible for your care. They may have a resident anesthesiologist and/or medical student working with them. They’ll discuss with you what their plan for the anesthetic involves and answer any questions you have. After you’ve changed into a patient gown, you’ll have an intravenous line placed by one of the nurses in the preoperative areas, and monitoring put on.

When the operating room is ready for you, you'll be brought to the operating room and sit on the edge of the operating room bed. A team briefing with all of the people involved in your operation will occur. 

Your anesthesiologist may or may not give you some sedation medication before the spinal anesthetic. Your back will be cleaned with a cleaning solution that feels cold, a plastic sheet will be placed on your back to keep it very clean. Your anesthesiologist will put some local anesthetic under your skin that makes you numb. They will then find the spinal space with a small needle. This takes approximately five minutes to do. Once they have injected the medication, you will feel numb and heavy from approximately the waist down for several hours. Your anesthesiologist may also give you some sedation medication during the procedure - it is common to have very little memory of the procedure if they do this. 

When your procedure is finished you will be taken to the recovery area where nurses will check you over carefully and ensure you are comfortable. Before you leave the recovery area, the nurses will check that your spinal block is wearing off.

You will have an opportunity to ask questions if you have any prior to the procedure. While we have asked you to review this information, your anesthesiologist will review their plan for your care with you on the day of surgery and discuss any risks that are relevant to you. 

Complications of spinal anesthesia

Common complications

Nausea and itch with spinal anesthesia are relatively common and easily managed. 

Spinal anesthesia is occasionally unsuccessful. This will mean you will need a general anesthetic. This happens to approximately 1:100 (1%) people. 

Headache that might require treatment (Post Dural Puncture Headache) happens to approximately 1 in 200 (0.5%) people following a spinal anesthetic. 

Very rare complications

Serious complications of spinals are so rare that it is difficult to give exact numbers on how often they occur. Bleeding or infection near the spinal nerves can cause permanent damage. 

The rate of permanent harm following a spinal anesthetic is between 1.6-2.6 people in 100 000 (0.0016%-0.0026%)

The rate of paraplegia or death following a spinal anesthetic is between 1.1 -2.1 people in 100 000 (0.0011-0.0021%)

As a comparison, the chance of dying in a first parachute jump or dying while running a marathon is also 1:100 000

Website disclaimer

Quoted risks on this website are for the general population.  Your personal risk may differ somewhat from the general population, depending on your medical history and what type of surgery you are having.  All patients will have the chance to discuss their personal risks and benefits related to having an anesthetic and surgery with their care providers prior to their procedure.  

The Anesthesiologist conducting your anesthetic on the day of your surgery will finalize your care plan with you before the procedure starts. This final care plan may differ somewhat from what was discussed in the Pre-Admission Clinic and what is outlined on this website. 

More about anesthesia

Preparing for anesthesia before surgery

General anesthesia

Epidural anesthesia

Monitored anesthetic care

Nerve blocks