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How Common is Awareness Under Anesthesia?

Mary McMahon
Updated Feb 13, 2024
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Awareness under anesthesia occurs in around .1 to .2 percent of general anesthesia cases, or one to two documented cases in every thousand surgeries. The rarity of anesthesia awareness has declined radically, thanks to a number of developments in the field of anesthesiology, making awareness under anesthesia thankfully extremely rare. That said, it can be extremely traumatic, and patients who experience anesthesia awareness are generally encouraged to seek psychological treatment to address the emotional trauma associated with this rare surgical complication.

Anesthesia awareness, also called unintended intraoperative awareness, is a surgical complication characterized by patient awareness of a surgical procedure despite the use of a general anesthetic. There are a number of different types of anesthesia awareness. For example, some people remember the procedure, but do not have any physical sensations, while others experience pressure or pain as the surgery is performed. Some patients are actually able to interact with the surgical team under anesthesia, demonstrating the fact that the anesthesia is not working as intended, while others may be unable to communicate.

The issue of awareness under anesthesia is complicated by the use of paralytic medications in anesthesia. Patients are often given muscle relaxants to make it easier to provide care during surgery, which means that they cannot move to speak to indicate that they are experiencing pain or awareness. Anesthesia awareness often results in an increased heart rate, dilated pupils, or crying, but these symptoms are also common reflexes, making it difficult to determine if the patient is in genuine pain or panic, or if the body is simply reacting normally to surgery.

A number of causes can be responsible for awareness under anesthesia. The most common cause is the use of a light anesthetic, as is common in obstetrical cases, emergency surgery, or high-risk surgery, where deep anesthesia could kill the patient. Because each body responds differently to anesthesia, and because many different types are available, it is hard to predict how a patient will respond. Awareness under anesthesia is most common in obstetrics and trauma cases, supporting the idea that light anesthetics are commonly responsible.

Anesthesiologists use a number of techniques to reduce the risk of awareness under anesthesia. Monitors are used to keep track of brain and heart activity, and close attention is paid to reflexes which could indicate that the patient is conscious, but unable to communicate due to the anesthetic. Patients with a history of adverse reactions to anesthesia may also be treated with special care, to prevent the risk of a recurring reaction or an episode of awareness.

Because awareness under anesthesia is rare, while it is a good idea to recognize it as a potential complication of anesthetic, it should not be viewed as a reason to avoid a medical procedure which could require anesthetic. Surgeons and anesthesiologists are usually happy to discuss the issue with patients, and to address any specific concerns which people have. In the event that awareness is experienced, if the surgical team does not become aware of it during the procedure, hospital staff should be notified as soon as possible after the procedure.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon1000659 — On Nov 10, 2018

I personally have never experienced this as I'm only a child, but I have had an operation involving stitches and anesthetics knowing I could've experienced this makes me cry out of most likely fear. I've always been scared of it, imagining feeling the needle go in, deeper, and deeper and then up again just for it to go on for 2 hours. It scares me and I hope soon we find a way to stop this and the government doesn't make it like $10,000 just for it. I've started praying for those who have experienced this hope those it has happened to get better.

By anon999571 — On Feb 03, 2018

I had general anesthesia yesterday for debridement of three places on my leg. My leg had been run over by my van (freak accident). Today, my entire body is sore like I just spent all day exercising. It's every muscle, from neck to ankles. Is this a side affect of GA? I have a wound vac, but I wouldn't think that being on one calf would affect my entire body.

By anon999570 — On Feb 03, 2018

I had a hysterectomy in 1997 and woke up. I don't know how far they had gotten with it, but I woke up and remember trying to wiggle my foot because I could not speak. Then I heard someone say "give me the other one, she is a mouth breather". That is all I remember. I did not feel anything, and I don't know if my foot wiggled at all, even though I was trying. Believe it or not, I have not told my doctor about it. I see him once in a while but fail to remember to tell him. It is not something that was traumatizing to me, but I can see how it could very well be traumatizing.

By anon350162 — On Oct 02, 2013

I was terrified of general anesthesia yesterday for a hernia surgery. I am 49 years old and in otherwise perfect health, and I was very fearful. It went perfectly. I didn't know until the anesthesiologist said "about 5 seconds" and the next thing I knew I was in the recovery room. No nausea, no sore throat, no nothing. Before this, all I could find on the internet is negative stuff, just wanted to offset with something positive. I'll do it again for my 50 year old colonoscopy!

By anon163767 — On Mar 29, 2011

Please let people know. My daughter had an emergency C-section and they let me go in during the operation. They tried three times to put a spinal in and that they had it, but when the operation started she was screaming. She felt everything. The anesthesiologist tried to tube her to put her out and she cried through the whole operation, so he taped her eyes and it came off from the tears.

She is suffering from the trauma of it. She remembers all the cutting. I'm suffering trauma remembering it all and i couldn't do anything to help her. Then after she blew up like a basketball from infection, now she's having twins and I'm sacred for her and she won't even go to the doctor. She is scared of what happened to her. What am I to do?

By anon97393 — On Jul 19, 2010

I was aware while having wisdom teeth removed - however, I did not feel any sensation, except for a light pressure at times.

By anon81102 — On Apr 29, 2010

i experienced awareness during a cesarean. the anesthesiologist apologized to me. it's hard to think about it. i was never asleep. at the end as he was sewing me up, i prayed and ask God to let me move my leg to let them know. I kicked my

right leg, and the doctor screamed, "she's light"

I kept kicking and wouldn't stop.

i felt the entire surgery, and heard the conversation and i heard an instrument fall to the floor. they were talking about me negatively. i told them what they said. i am still suffering from the trauma.

i didn't get any help or counseling. i need some now. i am afraid of everything. i am running my kids crazy. i can't let them go. that happened in 1986.

thank you for letting me write about this. --Mrs. Sand

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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