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Understanding The Risks Involved When Having Surgery

No Surgery Is Risk Free, So What Are The Risks?

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Updated May 29, 2014


Injury During Surgery

When having surgery there is the risk that parts of the body will be damaged in the process. For example, a patient having surgery to remove their appendix may have an accidental injury to the intestine, which is attached to the appendix.

This sort of injury may be detected during the procedure and fixed immediately or may become an issue during recovery, when medical staff detects the problem. If the injury is severe enough, additional surgery may be required.


Paralysis Caused by Surgery

One of the most severe complications, paralysis is uncommon but can happen, particularly during brain and spinal surgery. Depending on the nature and location of the surgery, the risk of paralysis may be greater.

A surgery to remove a mass that is tangled in the spinal cord or a surgery to repair a bad disc in the spine would have a higher risk of paralysis than an abdominal surgery, as the surgeon is working directly with the spinal cord.


Poor Results After Surgery

A poor surgical outcome can include severe scarring, the need for additional surgery or a procedure that does not provide the desired results. If the patient’s expectations are realistic and the results are not acceptable, there may be significant time and expense involved in fixing the problem.

In some cases poor results cannot be prevented, especially if the problem is worse than anticipated once surgery starts or if additional problems are found once the incision is made. Some surgeries have to be shortened if the patient is not tolerating the procedure, a decision than can affect the overall outcome.

A poor outcome that is the fault of the surgeon may be preventable if an experienced surgeon familiar with the procedure is selected. In cases where a poor outcome appears to be the fault of the surgeon a second surgeon may need to be consulted to discuss further treatment.


Numbness & Tingling After Surgery

Many patients experience numbness and tingling around their surgical site, for some it is a temporary condition; others find it to be a permanent complication. Creating an incision requires the surgeon to cut through nerves, which send messages between the body and the brain. If enough nerves are cut, the area surrounding the surgical site may have numbness or a tingling sensation.

Depending on the location of the damage, the nerve may regenerate, allowing sensation to return to the area over the course of weeks or months. In other cases, damage to the nerves may be too great for the body to repair, resulting in permanent numbness or tingling.


Scarring After Surgery

Scarring after surgery is not always preventable, especially when a large incision or multiple incisions must be made. All patients with an incision risk having scarring. In elective surgery such as plastic surgery, an obvious scar can be a much larger issue as the surgery is typically done in a place that is visible to others.

Patients have a significant responsibility for the prevention of scarring. Following instructions from the surgeon is essential. Instructions frequently include very specific methods of wound care and smoking cessation before and continuing after surgery.

Plastic surgeons typically require their patients to quit smoking at least two weeks prior to surgery because studies have repeatedly shown that smokers have scarring that is significantly worse after surgery. If a patient chooses not to quit smoking and scarring results, the physician has no control over this outcome.

Choosing an excellent surgeon and following instructions can help to insure minimal scarring. In cases of scarring that is a result of poor surgical skill, an additional surgeon may be required to repair the resulting damage.


Swelling and Bruising After Surgery

Surgical site bruising and swelling is considered a normal part of the healing process after surgery. The severity can be influenced by many factors including the type of surgery, the amount of force required to complete the surgery, the complexion of the patient and the type of care given after surgery.

Cold compresses and other simple remedies may speed the healing process, while use of certain types of medications can make bruising worse. These concerns should be discussed with the physician.

For most procedures the surgeon should be able to give a general estimate for when bruising and swelling should completely subside.

References

Patient Information Pamphlet, American College of Surgeons, 2007

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