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What Are the Biggest Risks and Complications for Surgery?

Published on January 22, 2024

All medical procedures come with potential risks and side effects, but surgery—even minor surgery—is among the riskiest. Not only do anesthesia and invasive procedures come with potential hazards, but the consequences of a medical mistake by a provider can be grave when it occurs during surgery.

Surgery saves millions of lives each year and advances in the surgical field increase positive outcomes. Most surgeries take place without negative consequences, but it’s best to be prepared with an understanding of the biggest risks associated with surgeries and the possible complications that could occur before, during, and after surgery.

What Are the Biggest Risks and Complications for Surgery?

Preoperative Assessment Problems

Before going into surgery, a patient’s care team must perform an accurate preoperative assessment. This evaluation helps to identify any risk factors unique to the patient. The assessment must include a thorough patient history and a physical examination focused on identifying cardiac or pulmonary risks, uncovering existing conditions that could interfere with successful surgery, and patient education so the patient can give informed consent to the procedure.

If a surgical care team fails to gain an accurate preoperative assessment or a patient’s informed consent, and an injury occurs due to this negligent action, the provider is liable for the victim’s damages, like medical costs, lost income, and pain and suffering compensation. A Phoenix surgical error attorney can help navigate your legal process towards compensation.

Risks and Complications of Anesthesia

Surgeries involve multiple risks for the patient. Not only does surgery require breaching the protective barrier of the skin through an incision, but the general anesthesia used to put the patient to sleep during the procedure also presents risks. Most people tolerate anesthesia well and reactions are rare but can be serious or life–threatening. Most reactions are mild and include nausea, dizziness, grogginess, sore throat, and dry mouth. However, rare serious reactions can occur, causing stroke, heart attack, and death.

Besides the risk of reactions to anesthesia, surgical patients also face the risk of becoming a victim of an anesthesia error. When the anesthesiologist assigned to administer the anesthesia and properly monitor the patient throughout the procedure makes an error, the result can be brain damage or death. 

In rare instances, “awake surgeries” occur. This is an error that causes a patient to awaken during their surgery. In some instances, the patient can hear, see, and feel everything, including the excruciating pain of a surgical procedure but isn’t able to move or communicate that they are awake.

Patients may suffer long-term consequences from anesthesia errors, including impairment, disability, and PTSD. PTSD and emotional trauma often occur in patients who’ve experienced the pain and terror of an awake surgery. A medical malpractice lawsuit can help victims recover financial compensation for their medical care, lost wages, and pain and suffering, as well as for emotional damages such as PTSD, anxiety, and depression. If a patient dies due to a surgical error, their close family members may gain compensation for the loved one’s medical expenses, funeral costs, and lost income for the number of working years they had left to them had they not died from their injuries.

Complications During Surgery

During surgery, complications sometimes arise including bleeding, hemorrhaging, shock, blood clots, or stroke. The surgical team must properly monitor the patient’s vital signs to watch for changes in blood pressure, heart rate, and bleeding. 

Human organs are packed tightly together inside the body cavities. In some cases, accidental injury occurs to other organs or tissue surrounding the body part that’s the focus of the surgery.

Drug reactions also occur in some patients during surgery when they receive a variety of medications to manage pain as well as anticoagulants, analgesics, and antibiotics.

Malignant hyperthermia is a rare complication that sometimes occurs during surgery. During malignant hyperthermia, the patient’s temperature rises to a dangerous level. This is a life-threatening emergency requiring immediate emergency treatment. Patients who’ve suffered malignant hyperthermia in a previous surgery are at a higher risk of a repeat episode during additional surgeries.

Accidental aspiration of fluid or food that moves up from the digestive tract while a patient is under anesthesia is also a life-threatening surgical complication. Surgeons try to mitigate this risk by requiring patients to fast and abstain from drinking water water prior to surgery.

Post-Operative Complications

Some surgical complications occur in the days following surgery. These include bleeding, shock, the reopening of wounds, infection at the incision sight, and respiratory infections. Blood clots may also occur due to debris and foreign matter that are sometimes released into the bloodstream during procedures. Extended bed rest may increase the chances of a post-operative blood clot. Blood clots sometimes form in the legs after surgery but may dislodge and travel to the heart, lungs, or brain, causing serious injury or death. Surgical patients are typically given blood thinners temporarily following surgery to minimize the risk of developing a blood clot.

Most patients are removed from the ventilator (assisted breathing) after their surgery, but some patients experience difficulty breathing after surgery, requiring an extended period on the ventilator following the surgery. In rare cases, patients may have difficulty breathing on their own after awakening from anesthesia and must be placed back on the ventilator and transferred to a rehabilitation facility to strengthen their breathing before the ventilator can be removed. Smokers, chronically ill patients, and patients with COPD and other breathing problems face a greater risk of trouble breathing after surgery.

Urinary retention sometimes occurs after surgery. The anesthesia used during surgery may cause a temporary inability to control the muscles used to release the bladder. Most patients recover their ability to urinate in the hours after the surgery, but in some cases, catheterization is necessary to drain the bladder or the patient may receive medication to stimulate bladder function.

One of the most rare, but devastating post-surgical complications is the discovery of a surgical tool, implement, or piece of gauze accidentally left behind inside a body cavity. This results from negligence on the part of the surgical team.

What If My Surgical Complication Was Preventable?

Most long-term effects from complications before, during, and after surgery are preventable when medical providers promptly recognize and address a complication through careful monitoring. If a medical provider fails to prevent or promptly treat a surgical complication and the result is a serious injury, the medical provider is liable for damages such as medical expenses, lost income, and compensation for pain and suffering. If the preventable surgical complication causes a patient’s death, close family members may be able to recover compensation for wrongful death.

Although a medical malpractice claim cannot undo the harm or erase the pain from a complication, it relieves financial burdens so the injury victim or their family can focus on moving forward.

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