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Anesthesiology/Waking from General: Panic Attack?


I recently underwent a 7 hr. spinal cord surgery and when I awoke I felt like I
could not breathe. I grabbed the nurse's arm and gasped, "can't. breathe! Can't. Breathe!" and she just assured me that my oxygen levels were fine. That did nothing for me, since my experience was that of feeling like I was not  able to get in any air. I was clearly having trouble of some sort because I just kept grabbing at people, and I think they gave me something to either calm me down or put me back to sleep. When I woke up again it was better.

Let me be clear that when I say, "can't breathe," I don't mean it was difficult to get a breathe--I mean I felt like I was suffocating and not getting any air AT ALL. I have never had a panic attack, but from the descriptions it sounds akin to that feeling. Afterwards, one of the other nurses said it can happen if the brain and body don't wake up in sync.  I am now terrified if I have to have surgery again, that I will have a similar reaction. It was a truly horrible experience.

Can you explain to be what happened? And if I ever have to have general again, what should I tell the doctors that will help prevent this from happening again?

I have had almost a PTSD-like experience in the months since my surgery about this...

At the time you felt this, you were probably still intubated and not quite completely awake. It is also possible (although I have no way to know) that the muscle relaxant they gave you to allow the ventilator to work and the surgery to proceed had not yet fully worn off. These are all normal responses. The reason you felt like you couldn't breathe is that when you are intubated and trying to breathe on your own, it is like trying to breathe through a straw. After a while it gets very difficult. The anesthesiologist monitors you and helps you breathe when you can't until you are fully awake and can take appropriate breaths on your own. Because the operation was so long, it took longer for the anesthetics to get out of your system and you probably became conscious before you were able to breathe adequately. Most of the time (and even in long cases) the tube is removed before you even wake up so you don't have to worry about this happening in the future. It is unfortunate that you experienced this but it does not indicate that it will happen again.

Ronald Levy, MD
Professor of Anesthesiology


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Ronald Levy, M.D.


Associate Professor of Anesthesiology, University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. I am a board certified anesthesiologist who can answer all questions related to any type of Anesthesia with the exception of Pain Management.

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