Waking Up During Anesthesia Can Have Long-Lasting Effects

Half of people who reported waking up from anesthesia suffered lasting psychological trauma

Tim Pannell/Corbis

Waking up on an operating table sounds like something out of a nightmare or horror film. But it does happen. And a new study looking into the occurrence of "accidental awareness during general anesthesia" found that, in a surprising number of cases, the effects of waking during surgery were long-lasting.

The report is the largest of its kind and looked at incidents of awareness in hospitals in the U.K. and Ireland over the course of four years. As the Atlantic reports, the vast majority of incidents were short lived and painless. But in many cases, those few moments of awareness—even if they were painless—were scarring.  

The researchers found that of the reported incidents, 51 percent of these patients experienced some kind of distress, and 41 percent suffered “longer-term psychological harm,” including symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder.  

In a feature for the Atlantic last year, Joshua Lang writes about the phenomenon and the effects that can haunt patients afterwards, sometimes for decades. Lang writes

Patients who awake hear surgeons’ small talk, the swish and stretch of organs, the suctioning of blood; they feel the probing of fingers, the yanks and tugs on innards; they smell cauterized flesh and singed hair. But because one of the first steps of surgery is to tape patients’ eyes shut, they can’t see. And because another common step is to paralyze patients to prevent muscle twitching, they have no way to alert doctors that they are awake.

This sort of awareness isn’t an everyday occurrence, and many patients don’t report it to their doctor, even if they tell someone else. The report indicates that people spontaneously report being aware under anesthesia only once in every 19,000 surgeries. It also notes that in previous studies, when patients were asked about their awareness after a surgery that number is dramatically higher—1 in 600.  

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