One of the most frequent questions I hear from patients before surgery is, “How long will it take me to wake up from general anesthesia?”
The answer is, “It depends.” It depends on:
- What drugs the anesthesia provider uses
- How long your surgery lasts
- How healthy, how old, and how slender you are
- What type of surgery you are having
- The skill level of your anesthesia provider
In best circumstances you’ll be awake and talking within 5 to 10 minutes from the time your anesthesia provider turns off the anesthetic. Let’s look at each of the five factors above.
- WHAT DRUGS THE ANESTHETIST USES. The effects of modern anesthetic drugs wear off fast.
- The most common intravenous anesthetic hypnotic drug is propofol. Propofol levels in your blood drop quickly after administration of the drug is terminated, resulting in rapid awakening.
- The most common inhaled anesthetic drugs are sevoflurane, desflurane, and nitrous oxide. Each of these gases are exhaled from the body quickly after their administration is terminated, resulting in rapid awakening.
- The most commonly used intravenous narcotic is fentanyl. Fentanyl levels in your blood drop quickly after administration of the drug is terminated, resulting in rapid awakening.
- The most commonly used intravenous anti-anxiety drug is midazolam (Versed). Midazolam levels in your blood drop quickly after administration of the drug is terminated, resulting in rapid awakening.
- HOW LONG YOUR SURGERY LASTS
- The shorter your surgery lasts, the less injectable and inhaled drugs you will receive.
- Lower doses and shorter exposure times to anesthetic drugs lead to a faster wake up time.
- HOW HEALTHY, HOW OLD, AND HOW SLENDER YOU ARE
- Healthy patients with fit hearts, lungs, and brains wake up sooner
- Young patients wake up quicker than geriatric patients
- Slender patients wake up quicker than very obese patients
- WHAT TYPE OF SURGERY YOU ARE HAVING
- A minor surgery with minimal post-operative pain, such a hammertoe repair or a tendon repair on your thumb, will lead to a faster wake up.
- A complex surgery such as an open-heart procedure or a liver transplant will lead to a slower wake up.
- THE SKILL LEVEL OF YOUR ANESTHETIST
- Like any profession, the longer the duration of time a practitioner has rehearsed his or her art, the better they will perform. An experienced pilot is likely to perform smoother landings of his aircraft than a novice. An experienced anesthesiologist is likely to wake up his or her patients more quickly than a novice.
- There are multiple possible recipes or techniques for an anesthetic plan for any given surgery. An advantageous recipe may include local anesthesia into the surgical site or a regional anesthetic block to minimize post-operative pain, rather than administering higher doses of intravenous narcotics or sedatives which can prolong wake up times. Experienced anesthesia providers develop reliable time-tested recipes for rapid wake ups.
- Although I can’t site any data, I believe the additional training and experience of a board-certified anesthesiologist physician is an advantage over the training and experience of a certified nurse anesthetist.
EXAMPLE TIMELINE FOR A MORNING SURGERY
Let’s say you’re scheduled to have your gall bladder removed at 7:30 a.m. tomorrow morning. This would be a typical timeline for your day:
6:00 You arrive at the operating room suite. You check in with front desk and nursing staff.
7:00 You meet your anesthesiologist or nurse anesthetist. Your anesthesia provider reviews your chart, examines your airway, heart, and lungs, and explains the anesthetic plan and options to you. After you consent, he or she starts an intravenous line in your arm.
7:15 Your anesthesia provider administers intravenous midazolam (Versed) into your IV, and you become more relaxed and sedated within one minute. Your anesthesia provider wheels your gurney into the operating room, and you move yourself from the gurney to the operating room table. Because of the amnestic effect of the midazolam, you probably will not remember any of this.
7:30 Your anesthesia provider induces general anesthesia by injecting intravenous propofol and fentanyl, places a breathing tube into your windpipe, and administers inhaled sevoflurane and intravenous propofol to keep you asleep.
7:40 Your anesthesia provider, your surgeon, and the nurse move your body into optimal position on the operating room table. The nurse preps your skin with antiseptic, and the scrub tech frames your abdomen with sterile paper drapes. The surgeons wash their hands and don sterile gowns and gloves. The nurses prepare the video equipment so the surgeon can see inside your abdomen with a laparoscope during surgery.
8:00 The surgery begins.
8:45 The surgery ends. Your anesthesia provider turns off the anesthetics sevoflurane and propofol.
8:55 You open your eyes, and your anesthesia provider removes the breathing tube from your windpipe.
9:05 Your anesthesia provider transports you to the Post Anesthesia Care Unit (PACU) on the original gurney you started on.
9:10 Your anesthesia provider explains your history to the PACU nurse, who will care for you for the next hour or two. The anesthesia provider then returns to the pre-operative area to meet their next patient. Your anesthesia provider is still responsible for your orders and your medical care until you leave the PACU. He or she is available on cell phone or beeper at all times. No family members are allowed in the PACU.
10:40 You are discharged from the PACU to your inpatient room, or to home if you are fit enough to leave the hospital or surgery center.
- Even though the surgery only lasted 45 minutes, you were in the operating room for one hour and 35 minutes.
- It took you 10 minutes to awaken, from 8:45 to 8:55.
- Even though you were awake and talking at 8:55, you were unlikely to remember anything from that time.
- You probably had no memory of the time from the midazolam administration at 7:15 until after you’d reached in the PACU, when your consciousness level returned toward normal.
I refer you to a related column AN ANESTHESIA PATIENT QUESTION: WHY DID IT TAKE ME SO LONG TO WAKE UP AFTER ANESTHESIA?”
Published in September 2017: The second edition of THE DOCTOR AND MR. DYLAN, Dr. Novak’s debut novel, a medical-legal mystery which blends the science and practice of anesthesiology with unforgettable characters, a page-turning plot, and the legacy of Nobel Prize winner Bob Dylan.
In this debut thriller, tragedies strike an anesthesiologist as he tries to start a new life with his son.
Dr. Nico Antone, an anesthesiologist at Stanford University, is married to Alexandra, a high-powered real estate agent obsessed with money. Their son, Johnny, an 11th-grader with immense potential, struggles to get the grades he’ll need to attend an Ivy League college. After a screaming match with Alexandra, Nico moves himself and Johnny from Palo Alto, California, to his frozen childhood home of Hibbing, Minnesota. The move should help Johnny improve his grades and thus seem more attractive to universities, but Nico loves the freedom from his wife, too. Hibbing also happens to be the hometown of music icon Bob Dylan. Joining the hospital staff, Nico runs afoul of a grouchy nurse anesthetist calling himself Bobby Dylan, who plays Dylan songs twice a week in a bar called Heaven’s Door. As Nico and Johnny settle in, their lives turn around; they even start dating the gorgeous mother/daughter pair of Lena and Echo Johnson. However, when Johnny accidentally impregnates Echo, the lives of the Hibbing transplants start to implode. In true page-turner fashion, first-time novelist Novak gets started by killing soulless Alexandra, which accelerates the downfall of his underdog protagonist now accused of murder. Dialogue is pitch-perfect, and the insults hurled between Nico and his wife are as hilarious as they are hurtful: “Are you my husband, Nico? Or my dependent?” The author’s medical expertise proves central to the plot, and there are a few grisly moments, as when “dark blood percolated” from a patient’s nostrils “like coffee grounds.” Bob Dylan details add quirkiness to what might otherwise be a chilly revenge tale; we’re told, for instance, that Dylan taught “every singer with a less-than-perfect voice…how to sneer and twist off syllables.” Courtroom scenes toward the end crackle with energy, though one scene involving a snowmobile ties up a certain plot thread too neatly. By the end, Nico has rolled with a great many punches.
Nuanced characterization and crafty details help this debut soar.
Click on the image below to reach the Amazon link to The Doctor and Mr. Dylan:
LEARN MORE ABOUT RICK NOVAK’S FICTION WRITING AT RICK NOVAK.COM BY CLICKING ON THE PICTURE BELOW: