As a Craniosacral Therapist, I regularly meet clients preparing and recovering from surgery in my private practice and in a hospital in Brighton where I work alongside medically trained colleagues specialising in respite and medical convalescence. I find that the effects of general anaesthetic appear to linger in some people beyond the normal recovery period, sometimes for days or weeks after the surgery and possibly longer. While most people recover well, some experience a range of sensations that can feel disorienting and distressing if left unresolved. I’d like to highlight some of the common experiences I’ve encountered and describe how I support clients through their recovery process.
What happens under general anaesthetic?
General anaesthesia is a whole person experience, affecting body, brain and mind. The variety of medications used ensure the following responses:
- Analgesia — loss of response to pain and sensation
- Amnesia — loss of memory
- Immobility — loss of motor reflexes and control of reflexes of the autonomic nervous system
- Relaxation of skeletal muscles
The skill of Anaesthetists and the drugs used continue to be refined and this progress means that people are treated more and more safely and effectively. Hopefully, most people will recover from anaesthetic with no problems although as with all medication, some will respond differently to the combination of drugs used. In these instances, I often hear the following experiences:
- “I feel like I’m floating and my feet aren’t touching the ground”
- “There’s a delay from when I decide to do something to when my body actually moves”
- “A part/side of my body feels like it’s not really there”
- “I want to burst into tears or shout at someone and I have no idea why?”
- “I feel like I’m in a dream, everything’s a bit hazy”
- “I feel as if I’m about to fall over or bump into something”
- “I have an underlying sense of panic and I don’t know why”
Even when the surgery is deemed successful, the body, brain and mind can appear to respond “as if” still anaesthetised even though the anaesthetic chemicals have been metabolised, perhaps in a non-conscious attempt to maintain a sense of safety. This is fine in the short-term but problematic if it becomes a habitual way of being. These residual effects have the potential to impair the clarity and nuance of movement, body sensation, spacial awareness and emotions.
As emotions are experienced in the body, anaesthetic often stimulates an emotional response in addition to the changes in perception and sensation. Along with the physical implications of surgery, “not feeling the body” can distort the sense of self and bring up feelings of fear, sadness and anger. The intense immobilisation and disorientation of anaesthesia, coupled with the loss of control to the surgical team can lead to a sense of vulnerability, agitation and helplessness. This can happen even when the client ‘rationally’ understands that the surgeon is highly skilled and empathic and the operation was successful. The emotional response of the patient needs to be acknowledged and respected whatever the response, and reintegrating a sense of the body is an essential part of this process.
Reintegrating Sensation and Movement with Craniosacral Therapy
In Craniosacral sessions I use touch and simple conversation with the client about their body awareness to support feelings of safety and relaxation. This helps the client to feel their way back into their body in present time so that their physiology no longer responds “as if” still anaesthetised. Returning to sensation too quickly can in itself feel overwhelming after being in such a deeply immobilised state which is one of the reasons why the gentle pace of Craniosacral Therapy is so effective. The numbing effect of anaesthetic means that clients often comment how they weren’t aware that they “couldn’t feel their legs or their connection with the ground” until they have been held in this way.
Sometimes clients feel clumsy, uncoordinated and slow after anaesthetic, their limbs can feel like they aren’t quite connected to the body. Mis-timing small movements can go with the sense of “the body not really being there” or sometimes that the whole body feels like “a ghost” or “a hologram“. While gross movements usually return quickly, subtle movement is sometimes slower to return so I often help clients to engage with simple, gentle physical movement to help ‘light up’ parts of the body that feel disconnected.
An enormous amount of energy is used to immobilise a whole living system, the surplus of this energy needs to be discharged while coming out of this state and mammals naturally do this through movement. Human physiology is similar to other mammals in this respect yet many of the medications used in human anaesthesia are designed to stop post-operative shivering. Shivering, twitching or trembling sometimes happen in a craniosacral session and I reassure and support clients to do this safely.
Feeling Grounded, Vital and Full
The disorientation caused by anaesthetic can be subtle, distressing and confusing and this is why I think it is so important for people to be supported through the process so that they can reestablish their sense of body, space and self. Craniosacral Therapy helps the haze of anaesthesia to clear and is followed by a more grounded, fuller sense of the body and a clearer mind.
NB – The medical priority
Maintaining communication with the primary care services available (eg Doctor or Surgical Consultant) is obviously the priority for the client to ensure safety from a medical perspective and there are many vital ways that rehabilitation is supported in this way. The support I offer to clients is ‘complementary to‘ not ‘instead of‘ medical care. Anyone who has had surgery or anaesthetic needs to speak with their primary care contact in the first instance and particularly if they have any concerns about their health.