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Do You Have a Legal Claim If You Wake Up During Surgery?

People who undergo major surgery will most likely receive general anesthesia. This will make them unconscious during the surgical procedure. Patients who receive anesthesia should have no awareness of the surgery or remember it when it is over.

While patients under anesthesia are expected to remain unconscious during surgery, there are some cases of awareness. In these rare cases, a patient can wake up during the procedure and may experience different levels of awareness. If this happens, the patient might want to know if they can take legal action against the medical team responsible.

This article will look at the nuances surrounding waking up during surgery. We will also address the issue of having a legal claim or not if such a thing occurs.

Understanding anesthesia awareness

Anesthesia awareness is a surgical condition where a patient wakes up despite anesthesia being administered. It occurs when a supposedly sedated patient under general anesthesia becomes conscious during the surgical procedure. It may also be called “accidental awareness during general anesthesia” (AAGA).

When general anesthesia is administered, it is intended to make the patient fall asleep, block pain, and paralyze their muscles so they cannot move during the surgery. When AAGA occurs, patients become conscious and aware of their surroundings. This can lead to:

  • A patient being conscious yet paralyzed and unable to feel pain
  • A patient is conscious and able to feel pain
  • A patient is conscious and able to move their muscles
  • A patient being conscious and both able to feel pain and move their muscles

Patients may experience anesthesia awareness during surgery due to:

  • Insufficient dosage of anesthesia administered
  • Defective medication delivery equipment or misuse
  • Administering little general anesthesia is administered to patients who are sensitive to anesthesia
  • Patient resistance to anesthesia

The effects and damages of anesthesia awareness

Patients who experience anesthesia awareness may be exposed to psychological harm when they wake up. According to CBS News, a study shows that half of the patients who experienced anesthesia awareness experienced severe distress. Also, more than 40 percent of the patients suffered psychological damage.

These physiological damages usually include:

  • Sleep disturbances or nightmares
  • Increased anxiety
  • Fear of future medical treatment
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Can you file a claim if anesthesia awareness occurs?

A patient who experiences anesthesia awareness is exposed to emotional and psychological trauma. When that happens, victims are compensated for their suffering and distress, depending on the claim. According to Awareness claims, “about 18 claims out of 79 reported on the database were for awake paralysis.”

“Compensation may be possible when a victim is sure that their anesthesia awareness was caused by negligence,” says Russell J. Berkowitz of Berkowitz Hanna. In this case, the medical error may be described as malpractice. The victim will require a medical malpractice lawyer to help them prove negligence.

To prove negligence, the lawyer will look at evidence such as:

  • Your medical reports
  • The anesthesia equipment used
  • The conduct of the anesthesiologist who administered the drug

The doctor will be liable if they made a mistake with the anesthesia dosage or faulty equipment. Note that you have a year from the surgery date or from the time of awareness about the negligence to file a claim.

Financial compensation may include:

  • Medical bills
  • Costs of therapy
  • Loss of wages or income
  • Physical pain and emotional distress (anxiety, depression, PTSD).


Approximately 1 in every 19,000 people become aware of the surgical procedure after receiving anesthesia. While this figure is small, the chances are not zero; you must understand the situation and know when to file a lawsuit for compensation.