Bulletins

Waking up under anaesthesia

September 08, 2016

Around 2.8 million operations are carried out under a general anaesthetic each year in the UK. For most, the process involves gently slipping off to sleep only to awake once the operation is complete and the patient in recovery. But what of the few who experience the horror of being in a state of awareness during surgery? A nightmare scenario that, whilst uncommon, is not as unusual as we would all hope.

General Anaesthetic is made up of a cocktail of drugs which is designed to relax your body and mind, and to numb pain. Many include what are known as neuromuscular blocking drugs, which cause paralysis, so that the surgeon can undertake the operation without any movement from the patient. The precise combination of those drugs is based on the individual. Certain groups of people are more likely than others to experience difficulties such as premature waking under anaesthetic, such as those suffering from severe infection or the morbidly obese.

It is essential that the quantities of each drug are calculated correctly, as if not, it is possible that the patient may be “awake” at some point during the operation, thus able to hear conversations or feel sensations of cutting or even pain, yet unable to communicate the fact to the doctor, because of a drug induced paralysis.

Clearly such an experience would be extremely distressing and would naturally invoke feelings of panic, as well as the physical sensations of choking or even suffocation, arising out of the presence of surgical equipment. Even if there is no residual physical damage as a result of the experience, it is understandably extremely common for people to suffer a psychological reaction, or post-traumatic stress disorder, which can lead to on-going problems.

Our specialist team at Metcalfes has recognised experience of dealing with cases involving problems associated with anaesthesia. One such case involved a gentleman who underwent routine surgery under general anaesthetic and, during the procedure, began to experience significant pain, as well as sensations of cutting and tugging to his abdomen. Due to the anaesthetic induced paralysis, he was unable to communicate with the doctor, but could hear details of the surgeons’ conversations around him. In that case, an internal investigation discovered that the client had been given an inadequate dose in error and liability was admitted. Sadly, the client suffered from serious flashbacks and developed medical treatment related phobia. He was awarded damages for his pain and suffering and the cost of psychiatric treatment to help him overcome his injuries.

If you, or anyone you know has experienced problems associated with anaesthesia, please contact our specialist medical negligence team on 0117 239 8012, or email us by using the online contact form and we will be happy to discuss your potential claim with you.

References and further reading:

Website content note: This is not legal advice; it is intended to provide information of general interest about current legal issues.

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Waking up under anaesthesia

Gillian Clark

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