Being Awake During Surgery Medical Negligence Lawyers

Being Awake During Surgery Medical Negligence Lawyers

Learn about compensation claims for being awake during surgery

anaesthetic awareness and a lady patient

Our friendly team of specialist lawyers at Medical Solicitors help people who have suffered from negligent medical treatment leading to anaesthetic awareness. Compensation can be claimed where a patient has suffered pain and trauma from being aware during surgery due to Medical Negligence. 

“I was awake during surgery!”

If you think that you have been awake during surgery, then something has gone wrong with the anaesthetic and you may be able to claim compensation for what is called ‘anaesthetic awareness’. 

Do contact our friendly team of specialist lawyers at Medical Solicitors. We conduct most of our Clinical and Medical Negligence claims under ‘No Win, No Fee’ agreements, also known as Conditional Fee Agreements. So, our clients do not have to worry about how they can possibly afford to pay for the legal costs of anaesthetic awareness claims. You have nothing to lose in speaking to us.

Our cases

We are currently acting in a case where we expect to recover a large six-figure sum in compensation (owing to our client being a high earner and having suffered loss of earnings). Our client was taken to surgery as an emergency due to complications and infection from a recent surgery. During this procedure, he became aware and was in excruciating pain and could feel tugs and stabs to his abdomen. He could also hear voices around him and in particular the voice of his surgeon. He started to count to a large number in different ways and then next remembers coming round in ICU. On analysing the medical records, and obtaining evidence from an independent anaesthetist, we were able to ascertain two times and places in which the awareness was likely to have occurred due to the evidence of the client along with his vital signs and drug charts. We have since secured admissions from the Hospital Trust that our client did become aware in surgery and also, potentially, during his transfer to ICU.

In another case, our clients contacted us to complain about having anaesthetic awareness, more technically known as ‘intra-operative awareness.’ Our client was unable to let the staff at the hospital know that she was aware, as she was paralysed by a muscle relaxant. Her blood pressure increased as she was panicking and only then was it discovered that our client was awake. Her anaesthetic was increased so she went back to sleep. However, post-operatively she was, understandably, very distressed and suffered a psychological injury. We assisted our client with the complaints procedure and provided advice on the draft root cause analysis investigation report the Hospital Trust had prepared. Following some screening work, which involved contacting an expert in the field of anaesthetics, we served a Letter of Claim.  The claim was settled for £20,000 within a year of our client contacting us. This settlement was lower as there were no large financial losses to claim (such as loss of earnings).

General information about anaesthetic awareness

“I was in pain but couldn’t move!”

When can anaesthetic awareness happen?
Anaesthetic awareness can occur during surgery but also after surgery, in the recovery room. Also, after surgery in intensive care, where patients are kept sedated or tranquilised. It can occur whilst patients are paralysed (and intubated) and are connected to life-support machines.

Some patients may dream around the time of surgery. This is common (3 to 6%), but it does not constitute awareness and can confuse the issue. Patients may also recall sounds or conversations as well as the presence of airway devices still in their body as they regain consciousness. A patient may mistakenly think this was as awareness. On the other hand, true cases of being awake during surgery can be difficult to detect.

How often does being awake during surgery happen?

Doctors now recognise that patients being awake during surgery ocurrs more than many previously thought. Public awareness is also increasing, with cases involving failings in medical care receiving more attention in the media than ever before.  Do you remember the 2007 Hollywood film “Awake” that drew many people’s attention to the subject? In addition, doctors have conducted research (through clinical trials involving large numbers of patients) that have shown that around 1 or 2 patients out of every 1000 experience some form of awareness.

How do patients know if they have been awake during surgery?

Some patients report anaesthetic awareness immediately after surgery. Others may not realise they were aware until days or even weeks after the event. A well-established method of detecting awareness involves the use of what is called a ‘Brice interview’. This method involves asking the following questions:

  1. What was the last thing you remembered happening before you went to sleep?
  2. What was the first thing you remembered happening on waking?
  3. Did you dream or have any other experiences while you were sleep?
  4. What was the worst thing about your operation?
  5. What was the next worse thing?

Consequences of anaesthetic awareness during surgery:

Awareness can lead to anxiety, fear of surgery and anaesthesia and sleep disturbances. It can also lead to flashbacks, nightmares and post-traumatic stress disorder or depression.

There are also consequences for the anaesthetist too. A study by the American Society of Anesthesiologists (ASA)  showed that 1.9% of claims were for anaesthetic awareness. The blame was put on substandard care, such as mistakes in drug labelling and administration.

Contributing factors:

There are often various causes of intra-operative awareness:

  1. Misjudging the dose needed for a patient
  2. Problems tolerating side effects of anaesthetic agents
  3. Failure to detect that a patient is in a state of awareness, or light anaesthesia
  4. Problems with equipment and drug delivery

Problems with anaesthetic side effects:

General anaesthesia can slow down the cardiovascular system. There are some types of surgery where anaesthetic doses may be deliberately reduced for safety, to maintain blood pressure. However, the risks of a patient then experiencing some degree of awareness during surgery does increase.

These typically include cardiac surgery, emergency or trauma surgery and Caesarean section. In Caesarean section, there are also concerns about the effects of general anaesthetic upon the unborn child, more so where there are pre-existing concerns about the unborn child.

Pre-operative checks:

A thorough history and examination can identify whether a patient is at greater risk of suffering anaesthetic awareness. Specific factors may include:

  • A history of previously having reported feeling awake during a surgery.
  • Drug abuse. Also being a long-term user of opiates for chronic pain, heart and vascular problems.
  • A previous history of difficult intubation or anticipated difficult intubation.
  • Heart, Caesarean, emergency and trauma surgery carry higher risks of anaesthetic awareness.
  • The anaesthetic technique may also increase the risk, if muscle relaxants are used.
  • Also, the risks increase with the where the anaesthetic is given just by inhalation (this is called ‘TIVA’), rather than through the veins or if  rigid bronchoscopy is used.

If risk factors are present, this should be discussed with you and you may be offered medication (benzodiazepines) before the anaesthetic to relax you (called ‘pre-medication’).

Methods for reducing the risks during surgery:

  • Drugs (benzodiazepines) can be used at the start of anaesthesia, particularly if a difficulty is anticipated the intubation stage.
  • There are other methods for managing blood pressure and heart rate, other than adjusting the level of anaesthetic. For example, using a vasopressor or an inotrope rather than continually reducing the anaesthetic concentration.
  • Monitoring brain activity in  a patient (through ‘EEG’) is a technique. However, this is not routinely used in the UK.

It may also be worth considering using depth of anaesthesia monitoring when available (see below). Despite precautions and good technique, some cases of anaesthetic awareness will still occur. Anaesthetists’ records should be clear about when drugs were administered and in what dose. It should also be clear what forms of monitoring were used.

What should happen if a patient reports being awake during surgery?

If a patient complains of being awake during surgery, it is important a doctor visits them to identify exactly what has happened. It is necessary to differentiate between dreams or recall of events that represent real awareness. Denying the patient’s version of events may contribute to a worse psychological outcome for them so it is important to apologise for their experience and express some sympathy. Detailed written records of these processes are vital.

The patient should receive adequate psychological support afterwards not only in the form of a regular visit by the anaesthetist but with the referral for counselling or psychotherapy if necessary. The patient’s general practitioner should also be informed so that this information can be taken into account when future treatments may be planned.


So, although being aware during surgery is a potentially devastating it is a rare event. It may not be possible to prevent every case from happening, but it is possible to identify high-risk cases. Once risks have been identified your doctors can plan to reduce the risks. In any event, for all patients, doctors must take great care to avoid errors.

Follow our links below to quickly access our information pages about how we can help with: a complaint about care, funding a medical negligence claim for anaesthetic awareness, and more:

Support for Anaesthetic Awareness

You may need emotional, practical, or even financial support after going through this distressing experience. If so, we have a web-page with important information for you about where to go. Please click here.


Follow our links below to quickly access our information pages about how we can help with: a complaint about care, funding a medical negligence claim and more:

Read Dianne Parr’s story in the Daily Mail:–I-paralysed-speak-Pass-scalpel-said-surgeon-.html

Contact our Anaesthetic Awareness Medical & Clinical Negligence Claims Solicitors

We provide urgent legal advice and support for patients anywhere in England & Wales. We have doctors and barristers located all over the UK, who provide us with meeting facilities, in London, Birmingham, Sheffield, Yorkshire, Oxford, Manchester, Leeds, Hull, Liverpool, Newcastle and beyond. Our team will travel to see clients. We think it best to see our clients in the comfort of their own home over a cup of tea. You are not a number to us. Call or email our friendly team free of charge for specialist legal advice on a no win no fee basis today.

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