Polling a group of diverse men and women on what causes them to experience “pre-surgery jitters” surprised me. Their answers (which were both specific and passionately expressed) were not what I anticipated.
I had expected men to be anxious about one set of concerns and women another. Wrong. Come the night before surgery, there was plenty of agreement between the sexes on what was worth losing sleep over. Contrary to what I had previously believed true, it seems that a person’s sex; educational background, economic stability, or prior medical history has little to do with what individuals secretly fear about entering the operating room. Although each person cited a particular area that triggered his or her inner alarm to go off, there was a single common theme running through every named fear. Bottom line: it was loss of control (imagined or real.)
Though men and women cited different types of concerns that trigger anxiety, underlying each was the fear that the unexpected could occur and there would be little they could do about it. This realization is accurate in part; no one is completely (or partly) in control. What people fail to acknowledge, however, is the power they can exert when they take an active role in alleviating as many of their fears as possible. It’s the old adage, “knowledge is power.” The good news for every patient is that there are specific steps that minimize the uncertainty and reduce those pre-surgical jitters. But before that…here’s a rundown of what folks fear most.
Pre-surgical Fears: The (Not So Short) List –
1. What if I don’t wake up from the anesthesia or (worse) wake up during the procedure but I am too paralyzed to cry out for help?
2. Will I be at risk for general anesthesia complications that will result in permanent mental or physical injury and loss?
3. What happens if I experience extreme side effects from the anesthesia such as feeling nauseous and dizzy?
4. If the worst happens and I die during the operation, how will my family be consoled?
5. What if my doctor finds something he didn’t expect, how might that change my treatment plan?
6. If surgery doesn’t correct my problem, what is the next step?
7. What are the possible and most common complications?
8. How long is the recovery period?
9. How much pain will I experience and how will it be controlled?
10. Is there a significant risk for infections such as Staph and MRSA?
11. What is the success rate of my surgery and how much experience has my physician had with this procedure?
12. I want more information about the specifics steps of the surgery but I don’t feel competent about what questions to ask, can you help me?
Did your fear(s) appear on this list? If not, perhaps you have a different one (or many.) In either case, having surgery doesn’t necessarily mean that you, the patient, abdicate all control to those masked medical professionals in the OR (not if you are willing to name your fears and do a bit of pre-surgery question and answer work on your own.)
The best way to reduce your pre-surgical anxiety is to take on the role of an information gatherer well before you head to the hospital and here’s how.
Darrell Wachowiak, Director of Surgery, Flower Hospital, Sylvania, Ohio, tells patients (and their families) how to prepare for a fearless pre-surgical experience. The best part of this RX is that you don’t need a medical degree to follow these expert recommendations.
Take These Steps — Alleviate Your Pre-Surgery Stress
* The double-edged sword of trust. Patients often trust in health care in general (and in their own providers personally) and so do not ask enough questions for them to feel comfortable. Recognize that trust in your physician also means you trust him enough to communicate your doubts and fears. Your professional doctor-patient relationship must be able to bear the weight of your questions.
* Identify within yourself what you fear. People are different and have many unique and specific concerns. Some are afraid of the actual procedure while others have no fear of the procedure but are anxious that they are vulnerable or may be exposed. Ask yourself what it is that you fear, make a list, and then go after the answers.
* Ask for help in reducing “your” specific fear. Medical professionals are happy to offer reassurance and information once patients identify their fears. Staying silent (and hoping for the best) is not prudent or practical because internal stress works against the patient (and the surgical outcome.) Bring your anxieties to the light of day and providers will help you extinguish them.
* No fear is too small; no concern is too minor to be voiced. Nothing pleases a health care worker more than to know that they are putting a patient at ease and decreasing their anxiety. Hospital staff here to help and with open communication the medical community can be better prepared to treat each individual (and their fears) with all the tools at their disposal (unmasking each and every one, one concern at a time.)
On a lighter note, one final fear was expressed (which I fear is a growing one.) Fear of getting on the scale in the pre-operating area!
Michele Howe, is the author of Burdens Do a Body Good. She is also a Women’s Health & Lifestyle Writer at