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Dtsch Arztebl Int. 2011 Jan;108(1-2):1-7. doi: 10.3238/arztebl.2011.0001. Epub 2011 Jan 10.

Awareness under general anesthesia.

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Klinik für Anästhesiologie, Intensivmedizin und Schmerztherapie, Knappschaftskrankenhaus Bochum-Langendreer, Klinikum der Ruhr Universität Bochum, In der Schornau 23–25, 44892 Bochum, Germany.



Awareness while under general anesthesia, and the later recall of what happened during surgery, can be experienced by patients as horrific events that leave lasting mental trauma behind. Patients may have both auditory and tactile perception, potentially accompanied by feelings of helplessness, inability to move, pain, and panic ranging to an acute fear of death. For some patients, the experience of awareness under anesthesia has no sequelae; for others, however, it can lead to the development of post-traumatic stress disorder, consisting of complex psychopathological phenomena such as anxiety, insomnia, nightmares, irritability, and depression possibly leading to suicidality.


The literature on the subject was selectively reviewed.


In the absence of risk factors awareness phenomena occur in one to two per 1000 operations under general anesthesia (0.1% to 0.2%) and are thus classed as an occasionally occurring critical event. In children, the risk of such phenomena occurring is 8 to 10 times higher. These phenomena are due to an inadequate depth of anesthesia with incomplete unconsciousness. They can be promoted by a number of risk factors that are either patient-related (ASA class III or above, medication abuse), surgery-related (Caesarean section, emergency procedures, surgery at night), or anesthesia-related (anesthesia without benzodiazepines, use of muscle relaxants).


Strategies for avoiding awareness phenomena under anesthesia include the training of staff to know about the problem and, specifically, the use of benzodiazepines, the avoidance of muscle relaxants if possible, and shielding the patient from excessive noise. EEG monitoring is effective but provides no guarantee against awareness. If awareness under anesthesia occurs despite these measures, the patient must be given expert, interdisciplinary treatment as soon after the event as possible in order to minimize its potential sequelae.

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