Imagine you’re waking up. You’re becoming aware of voices. Now imagine those voices are coming from doctors because you’re on the operating table. You want to open your eyes, but you can’t. You try to move your hands or feet, but are unable to. There is no way to alert the surgeon to the fact that you’re awake. All you can do is pray that you don’t feel any pain and that the operation is over quickly.
Does this scenario sound like a nightmare? For roughly 1 in every 1000 people undergoing surgery every year it is unfortunately a reality. That’s how many people experience anesthesia awareness or some level of consciousness during an operation. Some don’t feel any pain, but not everyone is that lucky.
The likely causes
In 1998, Carol Weihrer woke up during an operation to have her right eye surgically removed. While she’s reported as saying that she only felt ‘pressure’ from the surgical tools, she did experience the paralytic drug that was administered as ‘ignited fuel’. A 22-year old Sweden man who had to receive surgery following a collapsed lung was less fortunate. He’s reported as saying that the pain became more and more intense as the operation progressed. A harrowing tale when you learn that he was awake between 30 and 35 minutes of the 50-minute procedure.
But why does this happen? According to medical website News Medical, anesthesia awareness usually happens because the patient was administered an incorrect dose of anesthesia, being too little too keep them unconscious. Further to that, WebMD states that it’s also more likely to happen to patients who require a lighter dose of anesthetics. These include patients who receive heart surgery, emergency surgery or C-sections. In all of these cases the lighter dose of anesthetic is called for because the patient has to be kept stable.
Lifestyle factors that can play a role, again as reported on News Medical, are smoking, prescription or illegal drugs, a high proportion of body fat and a habitual drinking habit. These all affect how your body reacts with the anesthetic.
Solutions for the future
Obviously patients who wake up during surgery don’t only deal with the immediate possibility of excrutiating pain. Most, if not all, experience full-blown post-traumatic stress disorder as well. The symptoms of this condition include, but is not limited to, nightmares, flashbacks of the operation, personality changes and social anxiety.
It does not help that very little is understood about how exactly anesthesia works. This is not just a wild statement, by the way – this is one made by Nancy Kopell, a William Fairfield Warren Distinguished Professor and professor of mathematics. She is currently working with a group of researchers led by experts at MIT and the Massachusetts General Hospital, exploring and solving the mysteries around consciousness. They hope to develop the tools needed to eliminate anesthesia awareness for good.
One such tool is a sensor that will be able to alert anesthesiologists when a person is about to come of out of unconsciousness. Hopefully they achieve success shortly so that this ground-breaking technology can find its way on to pacs medical consoles in operating rooms soon. No-one should have to live through the horror of waking up during an operation.
Terrence is a long-time writer and researcher, with a specific interest in science, technology and the medical field.