If you’re having a major surgery, you most likely will receive general anesthesia and be unconscious during the procedure. This means you will have no awareness of the procedure once the anesthesia takes effect, and you won’t remember it afterward.
Very rarely — in only one or two of every 1,000 medical procedures involving general anesthesia — a patient may become aware or conscious. The condition, called anesthesia awareness (waking up) during surgery, means the patient can recall their surroundings, or an event related to the surgery, while under general anesthesia. Although it can be upsetting, patients usually do not feel pain when experiencing anesthesia awareness.
Although it can be upsetting, patients usually do not feel pain when experiencing anesthesia awareness.
Anesthesia awareness is not the same as remembering some activities surrounding your procedure, such as something that happened just before the anesthesia started working or when its effects began to wear off after surgery. This is normal. You might even dream during surgery and only think you experienced awareness.
Anesthesia awareness during surgery can happen for a few different reasons. It can be more common in patients with multiple medical conditions, and certain surgeries or circumstances increase the risk of awareness because the usual dose of required anesthesia cannot be used safely. These surgeries are often emergencies, such as emergency C-sections, certain types of heart surgery and surgery that’s needed after a traumatic injury.
People who have experienced awareness under anesthesia report different levels of awareness. Some people have brief, vague recollections. Others remember a specific moment of surgery or their surroundings. In some cases, people recall a feeling of pressure.
Patients also are more likely to experience awareness with procedures that do not involve general anesthesia. For example, you may recall all or part of your procedure if you have one of the following types of anesthesia:
- Intravenous, or “twilight” sedation, which is often used for minor procedures such as a colonoscopy, certain types of biopsies or a dental procedure.
- Local or regional anesthesia, such as an epidural, spinal block or nerve block, which temporarily numbs the area being treated during the surgery.
Depending on the person and the event, anesthesia awareness can be disturbing and even traumatic. If it should happen to you, be sure to describe your experience to your physician anesthesiologist after your surgery. Some patients benefit from counseling after surgery to help cope with feelings of confusion and stress.
Before your surgery, your physician anesthesiologist will meet with you to learn about any health conditions you may have as well as your previous experiences with anesthesia. To reduce your risk of experiencing awareness during general anesthesia, it is important to tell your physician anesthesiologist as much information about your health as possible, including the following:
- Previous problems with anesthesia, including a history of being aware during surgery
- All medications you are taking — prescription, over-the-counter and herbal supplements
- Concerns you may have about surgery, including fear of awareness during surgery
- History of drug or alcohol use, which can increase the risk of anesthesia awareness
Physician anesthesiologists are the most highly skilled medical experts in anesthesia care, pain management, and critical care medicine with the education and training that can mean the difference between life and death.