If you haven’t seen the preview for Hollywood’s latest horror flick Awake, they are worth checking out on YouTube. The movie is about a man undergoing heart surgery who experiences “anesthetic awareness,” a phenomenon wherein the patient is paralyzed but partly or fully conscious of the surgical procedures and conversations taking place.
The condition is most likely to occur when patients are given drugs that block signaling at the body’s neuromuscular junctions, leading to paralysis. These drugs are given during delicate surgeries in which the patient cannot be allowed to move. Normally neuromuscular blockers are given in combination with an analgesic that blunts sensation, but insufficient administration of the analgesic can bring about awareness even though the patient still appears to be knocked out to the naked eye. In real-life, doctors prevent this from happening by using EEG to monitor the patients’ brain activity levels.
Anesthetic awareness makes for a great plot device, but unsurprisingly the movie inflates the risk factor. While the trailer claims that 1 in 700 patients experience this seemingly horrifying condition, this article in Slate takes a closer look at the numbers and finds the real incidence to be 1 in 14,000.