How to deal with the fear of anesthesia

First of all, we must clarify that being afraid of anesthesia is very normal. “It’s totally understandable,” says Dr. Frank Wappler, who chairs the German Society for Anesthesiology and Intensive Care Medicine. At the end of the day, he adds, there is virtually no other situation in which one has so little control or decision-making power, the expert observes.

Wappler is well aware of the concerns patients have before undergoing surgery. Many wonder: “What if I never wake up from the anesthesia again? What if I am not completely anesthetized during the procedure?”

What affects patients the most is losing control. That’s what’s most scary, says Irmgard Pfaffinger, president of the German Association of Physicians Specializing in Psychosomatic Medicine and Psychotherapy. “In that situation, you are totally at the mercy of other people. You can’t even breathe on your own and you have to count on the anesthesiologist to be assisting you correctly with artificial respiration,” she adds.

The greatest fear is presented by people who are about to undergo their first anesthesia. “For them it is a totally new experience, and we all have a certain fear or respect for what we are going to do for the first time,” says the psychotherapist.

One of the possible ways to get rid of fear is to gain confidence. Having a prior consultation with the anesthesiologist can be of great help.

In this way, one may know in advance the person who will be in charge of that part of the operation in the operating room. Of course, this is not always possible, due to the complexity of the organization in a clinic or hospital, says Pfaffinger, who also worked as an anesthesiologist. “In those cases, you need to put that trust in others” and in the clinic’s experience.

Very important: in prior consultations, patients can raise any concerns they have. Similarly, anesthesiologists will also require a lot of information, such as body weight, height, allergies, and previous illnesses. This information is of great importance so that the anesthesia is correctly dosed.

In addition, in the prior consultation with an anesthesiologist, information about all the details of the procedure is also obtained: what exactly happens, when it happens, what kind of side effects may appear. Frank Wappler is convinced that it is the first step in gaining confidence.

The professional affirms that those who have good information before the intervention can relax much more in the operation, and it is something that Pfaffinger can also confirm. “When a patient knows in advance what will happen and everything happens that way, he feels very relieved,” he says. Quite the contrary, reading lame articles on the Internet about catastrophic cases in the operating room won’t help at all, he maintains.

Whoever is very afraid before the intervention, should express it in the previous consultations. Today, these issues are handled in a very different way than they used to be in the past. Painkillers are no longer given on a generalized basis. But whoever wants to have that medication, will usually be able to request it.

In addition, the anesthetists have their tricks to distract each patient before administering the corresponding dose, for example, through a little conversation. “Taking the conversation as a starting point, we do the anesthesia,” says Wappler, who works as a doctor at the Clinic for Anesthesiology and Intensive Operative Medicine in a German city near Cologne.

Anesthesiologists are solely responsible for narcotics. They give first a sedative, then a sleeping pill. Depending on the magnitude of the operation, they may also supply some muscle relaxation medication.

Wappler assures that those who are afraid of perceiving something despite being anesthetized have nothing to worry about. “We run our hands over the patient’s eyelids to see if he’s still blinking.” If he no longer has any kind of reflex, it is certain that he is fast asleep.

From that moment, when the patient enters the phase of not perceiving anything that happens, artificial respiration is applied. The devices used constantly measure various variables such as pressure, heart rate and blood oxygen saturation, and issue the corresponding alarms if necessary.

In addition, the anesthetist is permanently attentive. “If a patient starts sweating because he has too little fluid or is stressed, I can act on the fly,” Wappler says reassuringly.

Although no one wants to be operated on, the anesthetist says it’s best to think of narcotics as a blessing of modern medicine. He also tries to convey courage to the most terrified by telling them about an experience that is not uncommon after an operation: “There are patients who wake up and say: ‘I have never slept as relaxed as today in my life!’


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