Awake by Mistake During Surgery: a Patient’s Nightmare

No surgical patient wants to experience, or remember, the details of their operation, and the drugs given to put patients to sleep generally work nicely to create a blank slate in the mind for anything that happened after the anesthesiologist told the patient to start counting backward. But not always.

As many as 1 in 100 patients reports afterward that he or she was awake during the surgery, and can recount details of what was heard that make it clear it wasn’t a dream. The psychic injury is worse because the paralysis that accompanies anesthesia usually means that aware patients can do nothing to signal to the doctor that they can hear what is going on.

Sometimes these patients are psychologically traumatized enough (with post-traumatic stress disorder) that they end up in the office of a malpractice lawyer like me, asking if they have a legitimate claim against the anesthesiologist or the surgeon.

The answer to that question is “Probably not,” according to the latest research.

The problem is that while anesthesiologists have a rough idea of which patients are at high risk, nobody knows how to guarantee, or even improve the odds, that “intra-operative awareness” will not occur.

A study published this week in the New England Journal of Medicine assessed two possible ways of cutting the risk of intra-op awareness. One involved monitoring brain waves. The other involved measuring the concentration of anesthetic gases being exhaled by the patient. The study found that neither clearly worked, although there were fewer reports of intra-op awareness in the patients whose anesthetic gas levels were monitored.

You would think that if someone is awake by mistake during surgery, it means they weren’t given enough anesthesia. But you would be wrong, according to the experts. Despite decades of research, we don’t know that much about consciousness and memory, and their relationship to general anesthesia. And the ability to figure out during surgery who might still be awake when they look asleep is surprisingly rudimentary.

Here’s the conclusion of an editorial on the subject that was also published in the NEJM, written by Gregory Crosby, M.D., an anesthesiologist at Brigham & Women’s Hospital in Boston:

Monitors are meant to supplement, not supplant, clinical decision making, and depth-of-anesthesia monitors that reduce complex neurobiology to simple numbers are no exception. It is unreasonable to expect any such monitor to unfailingly detect conscious awareness – a specific and still mysterious property of the brain and mind – and neither patients nor physicians should think otherwise. Notwithstanding this and other weaknesses of current devices, a window into the anesthetized brain, albeit a foggy one, may still be useful, in conjunction with information from other monitors … as a generic, all-purpose index of the brain’s response to powerfully sedating drugs. Whether these devices add value in this way remains to be seen, but when minding the mind during sedation and general anesthesia, a little insight into how the brain is reacting is apt to be better than none, especially if it challenges historical ways of gauging anesthetic depth and catalyzes the search for something better.

Article first published as Awake by Mistake During Surgery: A Patient’s Nightmare on Technorati.

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