Electrosurgery in otolaryngology-head and neck surgery: Principles, advances, and complications

Timothy L. Smith, James M. Smith

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

104 Scopus citations


Objectives/Hypothesis: Electrosurgical instruments are routinely used in many applications by otolaryngologist-head and neck surgeons; and a complete description of their historical development, physics of operation, histological effects, and technological advancements is necessary for our specialty to take full advantage of this instrumentation. Because of the electrical current, heat production, and common use associated with these instruments, compounded by the complex environments in which they are used, potential complications must be considered and are likely under-reported in the literature. This thesis describes the important aspects of electrosurgery along with a study of complications so otolaryngologists can use these instruments to their fullest potential while limiting complications. Study Design: National survey of electrosurgical complications. Methods: A survey addressing potential complications of electrosurgery was developed based on a review of the electrosurgical and complications literature. The electrosurgical complications were organized in the following categories: 1) unanticipated direct burns as a result of the active electrode contacting some tissue unintentionally; 2) unintentional burns as a result of capacitive coupling where radiofrequency (RF) current passes through a metallic instrument (such as forceps) and burns tissue in contact with that metallic instrument; 3) fires occurring as a result of electrosurgical instruments; 4) electromagnetic interference with a pacemaker, defibrillator, or cardiac monitoring device; and 5) other complications not included in the previous categories. The survey was mailed to the 620 members of the Society of University of Otolaryngologists. Results: Of the 620 surveys mailed, 35 were returned by the post office for lack of a forwarding address and 296 were returned completed for a response rate of 49.7%. The respondents performed a total of 99,664 cases in the previous year. During that year, 324 complications related to electrosurgical instruments were reported. These included 219 unanticipated direct burns, 48 burns as a result current flow through a metallic retractor or instrument (capacitative coupling), 13 grounding pad burns, 11 fires, 32 cases of electromagnetic interference, and 1 hair loss at an incision site as a result of a cutting electrosurgical instrument. Information regarding the circumstances surrounding these complications and outcome are presented. Conclusions: Electrosurgery has proliferated since its original application by William T. Bovie and Harvey Cushing in the 1920s. Because surgeons use this technology frequently, a thorough understanding of these instruments and their potential complications is critical to their safe and successful use. Electrosurgical units operate on basic fundamental principles of physics and involve the passage of electrical current through tissue to create the desired tissue effect. With knowledge of the history, physics, techniques, histological effects, and safety issues of electrosurgery, the field will continue to proliferate and electrosurgery will continue to assist surgeons in alleviating human suffering.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)769-780
Number of pages12
Issue number5
StatePublished - 2001
Externally publishedYes


  • Coagulation
  • Complication
  • Electocautery
  • Electromagnetic interference
  • Electrosurgery

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Otorhinolaryngology


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