It’s time to sift fact from fiction. By Lester Wong
Photo: Illia Uriadnikov / www.123rf.com
Anaesthesia was a game-changer for modern medicine when it was first successfully used on a patient by American dentist William Morton on Oct 16, 1846. Since then, surgery has become largely pain-free for patients, even as doctors are doing increasingly delicate and complex surgical procedures.
The mark of a successful general anaesthesia is that the patient remembers nothing of the surgery when he wakes up. And that is what happens almost all of the time. Not surprisingly, what sticks in people’s minds are stories of the very rare cases of people who are conscious during part of the surgery. These stories propagate misconceptions and anxiety in patients.
Patients with lower education levels and a lack of awareness tended to be more anxious. The most common myths were feeling pain during surgery, waking up during surgery and becoming paralysed after surgery.
Many patients may not know that an anaesthesiologist is part of the team that operates on them. “Anaesthesiologists diagnose and treat medical problems or conditions that may arise before, during and after surgery, even while you sleep,” said Dr Tay Yoong Chuan, a consultant anaesthesiologist at the Singapore General Hospital.
Here are his responses to some myths related to anaesthesia:
MYTH: The anaesthesia might wear off during surgery and I will wake up but be unable to call for help.
FACT: Consciousness during surgery is extremely rare. Before surgery, your anaesthesiologist will talk to you about your health and previous anaesthesia experience. This will enable him to provide you with the best and safest care plan to reduce the risk of problems.
MYTH: I may end up paralysed.
FACT: If you choose to have regional anaesthesia, you will be unable to move your arms or legs during surgery. Regional anaesthesia allows a part of the body to be anaesthetised for surgery without the need for general anaesthesia.
While there may be residual paralysis of a limb, this is temporary, until the medication wears off. Before being discharged from hospital, proper limb-care education is provided to protect it until full sensation and strength returns. Permanent numbness and weakness of the limbs are extremely rare.
MYTH: I will still feel pain during surgery.
FACT: The anaesthesiologist is trained to provide pain relief during surgery. Do inform your doctor if you have any lingering pain after surgery. As pain is subjective, your anaesthesiologist will attend to your needs.
MYTH: I might not wake up after surgery.
FACT: Undergoing general anaesthesia is like going into a very deep sleep, after which you should wake up. This is the experience of patients, unless a serious event like a stroke has occurred. Your anaesthesiologist will meet you before a procedure to discuss your individual risk associated with anaesthesia.
If there is a need for you to be closely monitored after a procedure, you will be sedated during your stay in intensive care. When your condition stabilises, you will be woken up slowly.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 11, 2016, with the headline ‘What if I wake up during surgery?‘.