The Mystery of Anesthesia | DocFilm | DW | 13.06.2019
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The Mystery of Anesthesia

It’s a horrifying scenario: Being operated on under general anesthesia - and you are still awake! Around ten million operations are performed under general anesthesia in Germany each year. But what exactly happens in the brain is still a mystery.

Watch video 42:36

The anesthetics used today were basically found by trial and error. And the big questions remain unanswered. Why do completely different anesthetics have exactly the same effect - unconsciousness? Why do they work perfectly with one patient and hardly or not at all with another? How can scientists make general anesthetics safer for patients? As long as they have no answers, anesthesia remains a risky business, especially for older patients, for whom an operation can be very dangerous: after general anesthesia, between 30 and 40 percent of people over 60 suffer from a "postoperative cognitive deficit," also termed "postoperative delirium." The causes of the disorientation and hallucinations are not clearly understood, although recent studies suggest that the deeper the anesthesia, the higher the risk of cognitive impairment after surgery. During an operation, anesthetists monitor breathing, blood pressure and heart rate, as well as brain waves with an EEG to assess whether the sleep is deep enough. Anesthetists manage a balancing act. If the dose of anesthetics is too low, the patient wakes up during the operation, but if the dose is too high, there’s an increased risk of consequential damage. An estimated 10,000 to 16,000 patients in Germany regain consciousness during general anesthesia every year. How can such incidents be avoided? And how can the anesthesia be more closely tailored to the patient and their medical history? This documentary looks at various different scientific approaches: new drugs, new measuring devices to ensure more exact dosages, and even hypnosis as an alternative to general anesthesia.