Very rarely – in only one or two out of every 10,000 medical procedures involving anesthesia – a patient may become aware or conscious. The condition – called anesthesia awareness – means the patient can recall the surroundings or an event related to the surgery while under general anesthesia. Although it can be upsetting, patients usually do not feel pain.
Certain surgeries or circumstances increase the risk of awareness during surgery because the usual dose of required anesthesia cannot be used safely. These include emergency surgeries – such as C-sections, heart surgery and trauma surgery – as well as when patients have multiple medical conditions. Physician anesthesiologists closely monitor surgeries using sophisticated equipment to ensure that, even in the rare case when awareness occurs, a patient is safe and does not feel pain.
If you think you experienced anesthesia awareness during a procedure, tell your physician anesthesiologist or health care team as soon as possible.
It’s not uncommon for patients to believe they were aware during surgery, when this was not the case. A patient typically remembers the time when the anesthesia has just begun to work but has not completely taken affect, or shortly after surgery, when the anesthesia has not yet worn off, but this is not considered awareness which would take place during the procedure.
Patients also are more likely to have awareness with procedures that do not involve general anesthesia. For example, you may recall all or part of your procedure if you have:
- Intravenous, or “twilight” sedation, often given during minor procedures such as a colonoscopy, a biopsy or a dental procedure
- Local or regional anesthesia, such as an epidural or spinal block, or a nerve block
To reduce your risk of experiencing awareness during procedures with general anesthesia, it is important to tell your physician anesthesiologist important health information, including:
- Previous problems with anesthesia, including a history of being aware during surgery
- All medications you are taking, both prescription, over-the-counter and herbal supplements
- Concerns you may have about surgery, including fear of being aware during surgery
Patients who have experienced anesthesia awareness during a procedure can get counseling to help ease any feelings of confusion, stress or trauma.