One of the most disturbing surgical complications is also frighteningly common: As many as 1 in every 500 patients wakes up on the operating table and is at least dimly aware of what’s happening, according to a new survey of doctors.
The findings, published in the British Journal of Anesthesia, noted most patients say they are not distressed by the experience because they feel no pain and are not fully awake or aware of the circumstances.
But lead researcher Jaideep Pandit, an Oxford University anesthetist, said it happens far more frequently than past research has suggested. One reason: Only 1 in 15,000 patients who can remember at least some aspects of an operation mentions the experience to the doctor afterwards.
The experiences recalled by the patients: Vague awareness of conversations among the staff in the operating room and even the knife on their skin (but no pain).
“The difference between the incidence of one in 500 and one in 15,000 suggests that even in the rare cases where patients are experiencing awareness, in most cases, the sensation is a ‘neutral’ one,” Pandit told the Independent on Sunday.
“What we are possibly seeing is a third state of consciousness — dysanaesthesia — in which the patient is certainly aware of events but not concerned by this knowledge, especially as they are not in pain.”
He added that problems in the way the anesthetic is given or even by genetic variation among surgical patients may cause some to react differently to the drugs.
For the survey, Pandit polled more than 7,100 anesthesiologists at 329 British hospitals.