Patients Have Been ‘Waking Up’ During Surgery, Surprisingly Pain Isn’t The Worst Part Of The Experience

Surgeries can be a pretty nightmarish experience. The mere thought of being cut open and operated by a surgeon is enough for most people to cower in fear and seek alternative treatment methods. Now imagine “waking up” while a surgeon operates on you.

Though it sounds horrific, the biggest-ever study of this phenomenon is shedding light on what such an experience actually feels like, and is causing intense debate about how best to prevent it. For a one-year period starting in 2012, an anesthetist at every hospital in the United Kingdom and Ireland recorded every case where a patient told a staff member that he or she had been awake during surgery, reported The Sydney Morning Herald. The results were quite astonishing, and researchers eventually ended up investigating over 300 cases, interviewing the patient and doctors involved.

One would imagine that waking up during a live surgery would cause immense pain, but the study’s lead author, Jaideep Pandit of Oxford University Hospitals, revealed that his wasn’t the case.

“Pain was not generally the worst part of the experience. It was paralysis”

It is quite understandable to feel paralyzed since, for many operations, paralyzing drugs are given to relax muscles and stop reflex movements, explained Jaideep.

“Pain was something they understood, but very few of us have experienced what it’s like to be paralyzed. They thought they had been buried alive.”

Sandra, who regained consciousness but was unable to move during a dental operation when she was 12 years old, narrated her own experience.

“I thought I was about to die. It felt as though nothing would ever work again — as though the anesthetist had removed everything apart from my soul.”

Interestingly, patients seldom woke up during a surgery. The audit found that most episodes of awareness were brief and happened before or after the surgery took place. Nonetheless, waking still caused distress in 51 percent of cases. Moreover, apart from paralysis, patients reported sensations of pain and choking too, reported The Guardian.

Unsurprisingly, such studies have been conducted in the past as well, but the latest one pegged a very low number of instances where a patient woke-up during a surgery. One case for every 19,000 operations involving general anesthesia was reported in this one, but similar studies conducted on smaller scales, suggested the rate could be as high as one in 500.

To ensure such incidents are brought down, the audit team is urging anesthetists to use a device called a nerve stimulator to enable them to give the minimum dose. A lower dose should be enough to stop spontaneous movements, yet still allow the patient to move if he becomes conscious enough to feel pain, shared Jaideep.

[Image Credit | Chang Yang]