Background: Patients who are given general anaesthesia are not guaranteed to remain unconscious during surgery. Knowledge about the effectiveness of current protective measures is scarce, as is our understanding of patients' responses to this complication. We did a prospective case study to assess conscious awareness during anaesthesia.
Methods: 11785 patients who had undergone general anaesthesia were interviewed for awareness on three occasions: before they left the post-anaesthesia care unit, and 1-3 days and 7-14 days after the operation.
Findings: We identified 18 cases of awareness and one case of inadvertent muscle blockade that had occurred before unconsciousness. Incidence of awareness was 0.18% in cases in which neuromuscular blocking drugs were used, and 0.10% in the absence of such drugs. 17 cases of awareness were identified at the final interview, but no more than 11 would have been detected if an interview had been done only when the patients left the post-anaesthesia care unit. Four non-paralysed patients recalled intraoperative events, but none had anxiety during wakefulness or had delayed neurotic symptoms. This finding contrasts with anaesthesia with muscle relaxants, during which 11 of 14 patients had pain, anxiety, or delayed neurotic symptoms. After repeated discussion and information, the delayed neurotic symptoms resolved within 3 weeks in all patients. Analysis of individual cases suggests that a reduced incidence of recall of intraoperative events would not be achieved by monitoring of end-tidal anaesthetic gas concentration or by more frequent use of benzodiazepines.
Interpretation: The inability to prevent awareness by conventional measures may advocate monitoring of cerebral activity by neurophysiological techniques. However, the sensitivity of such techniques is not known, and in the light of our findings, at least 861 patients would need to be monitored to avoid one patient from suffering due to awareness during relaxant anaesthesia.