ByMark Newton, writer at
Movie Pilot Associate Editor. Email: [email protected]
Mark Newton

Surgery can be a terrifying experience in most situations, but at least people are not conscious during the actual slicing through the body part - well, most people that is.

The largest study ever conducted on "accidental awareness" has just been completed. "Accidental awareness" is basically a nice way of saying "waking up while you're being dissected by surgeons." Although the study suggests the harrowing phenomenon is rarer than initially thought, it still happens to a surprisingly large amount of people.

What Are My Chances of Waking Up During Surgery?

The study, which was headed by Jaideep Pandit of Oxford University Hospitals, was conducted to better understand the rare condition and make recommendations to health professionals about how to deal with its often major side-effects.

Originally, it was thought the chance of waking up during surgery was around 1 in 1,000, however this new, larger study suggests it's much rarer, placing your chances of waking up at around 1 in 19,600, or roughly 0.005%. Sure, that sounds kind of rare, but in real world terms that still means a lot of people will experience "accidental awareness." In the United States alone, there are around 21 million surgeries performed annually which utilize a general anesthetic, this means around 1,050 people will wake up during surgery - and that's just the number for the US.

What Does It Feel Like?

As you can imagine, waking up while a bunch of doctors are poking around in inside your body is a traumatic and painful event. What makes it even worse is that in most cases, the patient cannot communicate with the surgeons, meaning they are essentially trapped. Often heart rate and blood pressure increases, which can act as an indicator for doctors, but these can be caused by a number of issues, and can also be reduced by medication.

However, it should be noted that most cases of accidental awareness last fewer than five minutes and occur when patients are either being put to sleep or woken up. Regardless, patients who do wake up reported pain, hallucinations and asphyxiation.

Accidental awareness was a concept explored in the movie, Awake.
Accidental awareness was a concept explored in the movie, Awake.

Due to the horrific nature of the event, around half of patients who wake up during surgery will also experience some kind of psychological trauma. Post-traumatic stress is common, while depression can also occur.

Who Is Most At Risk?

As stated above, overall the chances of waking up are slim. However, it is slightly more common in women than men, as well younger people - although not, thankfully, children and teens. Other factors can also increase your chances, such as your general level of heath and weight. Of course, another element is the level of skill of the anesthesiologist, as it is most common with those early into their training.

What Can Be Done About It?

Previously, it was thought monitoring brain activity could alert surgeons to accidental awareness. The idea goes that if they see a spike in brain activity, it is because the patient is waking up. However, studies to validate this method have concluded with mixed results.

Another possible method is using nerve simulators which could monitor the body's state of paralysis. An additional advantage of this approach is that less medication would be needed, therefore allowing the patient to react if they do wake up.

But, generally, waking up during surgery will always be a possibility. In this sense, perhaps the best possible therapy is providing for the patients' psychological needs after the surgery.

However, remember, don't be too scared. The phenomenon is still extremely rare, and shouldn't dissuade you from seeking or partaking in surgery if you need it.


Have you ever been put to sleep for surgery?

Source: IFLScience, Anaesthesia

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