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Awake During Surgery

SurgeonIt sounds so horrible that you'd think it was a relic of the 19th century. But, it happens more often than you'd think. Where? In modern medical facilities in America and around the world.

In about two cases per thousand, general anesthesia doesn't work as planned. Patients can be awake and feel pain but remain paralyzed, unable to communicate to the surgical staff. Sometimes patients feel no pain but are aware of what is happening to them. Other patients have no recollection of the surgery but, clearly, an implicit memory of the trauma exists. These patients experience nightmares, flashbacks, and anxiety. Remember, surgery can last for hours...an unbearable length of time to a paralyzed but conscious patient.

Given the failure rate of two per thousand, this nightmare occurs to about forty thousand patients per year in the United States alone. Anesthesiologists are divided as to how best treat this problem. Many are hesitant to do anything. To begin with, general anesthesia is a tricky, dangerous thing. Until the 1980's the death rate from general anesthesia was 1 in 10,000. Although today, with the discovery of dantrolene sodium as an antidote to the most common adverse reaction, the mortality rate has fallen to 1 in 250,000.

It seems though that awareness is on the rise and an effort is being made to reduce these occurences in the future.

September 25, 2004 in Science | Permalink

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