Awareness under general anesthesia (where the anesthetic plan is total unconsciousness) is a very rare condition that occurs when surgical patients can recall their surroundings or an event – sometimes even pain – related to their surgery while they were under general anesthesia. Modern anesthetic medications and monitors make the risk of awareness under general anesthesia exceptionally rare.

When using some kinds of anesthesia, such as local, sedation or regional anesthesia, it is expected that patients will have some recollection of the procedure. These forms of anesthesia are not used for very extensive or painful surgeries. Prior to your procedure, your anesthesiologist will discuss the anesthetic plan and the risk of awareness.

Studies are not conclusive on the frequency of awareness under general anesthesia, but even one case is important to anesthesia professionals (anesthesiologists and certified registered nurse anesthetists), who recognize that this can be a distressing or traumatic experience for the patient.

When awareness during general anesthesia does occur, it is usually just prior to the anesthetic completely taking effect or as the patient is emerging from anesthesia. In very few instances, it may occur during the surgery itself.

Despite the rarity of awareness, members of the American Society of Anesthesiologists (ASA) want you to know about this possibility. These organizations have been studying this issue and are in the process of evaluating the effectiveness of various technologies and techniques to decrease the likelihood of this occurring.

For more information, a resource on Awareness Under Anesthesia is available from the American Society of Anesthesiologists.

Information adapted from the American Society of Anesthesiologists.