Thursday, November 29, 2018

Retention Sutrures

Old school surgeons had a tendency to overdo just about everything from meticulously double tying simple bleeders to throwing in heavy duty retention sutures for added insurance against impending complications. A patient with wound dehiscence or more bluntly a burst abdomen was like a graphic, negative advertisement of surgical ineptitude. Something  to be avoided at all cost.  The  illustration above shows a wound that is beginning to "dehis" on the right side, but the retention sutures are averting a catastrophic blow out.

There was little science in deciding when to deploy torturous retention sutures and empirical notions ruled the roost. The end result was almost every obese surgical patient suffered the excruciation of miserable retention sutures which were applied in wide suture bites through skin, abdominal fat pad, and firmly anchored in the muscular abdominal wall. The dimpling of the  delicate skin before it yielded to the vicious thrust of a gigantic cutting needle pulling heavy suture was a chilling sight. A surgeon strafing a delicate abdomen with retention sutures shivered my timbers like nothing else. Orthopedic surgery with all it's bone crunching sawing and drilling was small potatoes compared to the forcible  application of retention sutures.

These gargantuan  sutures were usually left in place for about 2 weeks of abdominal throbbing madness for the hapless patient. Removal  was the most painful part of the surgical experience. ( I just love that new fangled vernacular where just about everything in modern healthcare is an experience or journey.) How about that, I can write like a whippersnapper if I try really hard!

The suture extraction process was very painful as a result of tissue adherence during the healing process. Sutures were practically cemented in place.  The fact that the abdominal wall was richly innervated exacerbated the situation. Considerable traction was necessary to pull the unyielding suture free from it's tenacious cementation in the underlying tissue. The sordid suture removal   affair reminded me of pulling cold taffy accompanied by loud screams and anguished howls. The task was almost always relegated to the least senior resident. Thank heaven, nurses never removed retention sutures.

One aspect of retention sutures always reminded me of an executioner applying a hood to the condemned before the act final was completed. This action was ostensibly done to make it easier on the prisoner, but the only real beneficiary was the executioner who could not see condemned man's suffering. For patient "comfort" the retention sutures were cushioned with short lengths of latex tubing where they contacted the skin. These bolsters or bumpers as they were called were custom made by the scrub nurse trimming a length of tubing as the sutures were placed. Any "comfort" from these little gems existed solely in the mind of the surgeon.  Retention sutures fueled post-op pain like pouring gasoline on a fire whether bolsters were in place or not.

More recent knowledge suggests that alteration  in the integrity of connective tissue is responsible for wound dehiscence and not necessarily obesity. The retention suture for all obese patients was not appropriate. Hopefully laproscopic procedures and improved techniques have made retention sutures extinct.


  1. Yikes ~ I remember those nasty things!

  2. OUCH! This is one of those times when the line is blurred or completely overstepped between "patient" and "victim."

  3. Just about any medical procedure preceded by "retention" was unpleasant for the patient. I'm thinking of forced retention enemas.