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What do patients experience during 'anesthetic awareness?'

One of the many fears that patients have before surgery is that the anesthesia might wear off too soon, and they'll wake up during the procedure. The phenomenon of "anesthetic awareness" is relatively rare (although exact numbers vary widely depending on which study you look at). Not surprisingly, it's more common in surgeries where smaller amounts of anesthesia are used -- such as in emergency C-sections.

It's also not what people might expect -- that you wake up to the excruciating pain of feeling your body opened up. However, it can be highly traumatic -- and that trauma can remain with a person long after the event is over. Victims of anesthetic awareness report some combination of choking, hallucinations, pain, paralysis and even near-death experiences.

Paralysis can be experienced when a paralytic is part of the anesthesia "cocktail." Paralytics are used to keep patients' bodies from moving while they're being operated on and to make it easier to insert a breathing tube. An anesthesiologist who led one study says that patients were more distressed by experiencing paralysis than any pain they felt during anesthetic awareness.

One woman who regained consciousness during eye surgery over 20 years ago still recalls it vividly. She says, "I was awake but paralyzed….I was screaming, but no one could hear me. I felt no pain, just a tugging sensation….I couldn't move. I thought I was dying."

The woman, who still suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) because of the incident, says she has to sleep in a recliner because if she lies down, "I get flashbacks of the operating table and I start violently thrashing."

Medical professionals can spot possible cases of anesthetic awareness by carefully monitoring patients' blood pressure and heart rate during surgery. Monitors can also be used to track brain activity. The anesthesiologist noted above also says that if doctors used nerve stimulators to measure the amount of paralysis achieved, they might be able to lessen the amount of paralytic administered and let patients move if they gain consciousness.

If you or a loved one has been traumatized after suffering anesthesia awareness, don't let your doctor minimize that trauma. Psychological help and medication may be needed to deal with it. It may be worthwhile to talk with an attorney to determine what your options are for seeking compensation for expenses as well as pain and suffering.

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