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35 Riskiest Medical Procedures

CT Scan

CT Scan

CT scans are one of the largest contributors to radiation exposure and can result in a greatly increased risk of death by cancer. In most cases, a traditional X-ray can be less dangerous and more informative.

When doctors recommend a full body CT scan, it’s important to ask questions to find out if it’s really necessary.

Organ Transplant

Organ Transplant

Patients requiring any sort of organ transplant are already in poor health, which immediately increases the inherent surgical risks. Once the transplant is complete, the most serious complication is the fact that the body may reject the new organ.

According to Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, liver and intestinal transplants present the highest risk of all. 

Epilepsy Surgery

Epilepsy Surgery

While some people with epilepsy face seizures only occasionally, others may have up to a hundred over the course of 24 hours. Medication is typically the first course of action, but when that fails, surgery may be suggested.

It may be highly effective for some, but it also has the potential to leave patients with serious motor impairments, paralysis, memory loss, or even increased seizures. Brain surgeries of all types most certainly come with the highest risks of any surgical procedure.

Breast Reduction

Breast Reduction

Physically, there’s always the potential for scarring or poor workmanship when getting a breast reduction. One of the most common is decreased sensitivity in the nipple area, which occurs up to 70% of the time. Additionally, there's a chance that you could experience tissue necrosis (aka tissue death), excessive firmness, deep vein thrombosis, or persistent pain.

After the surgery, the breast reduction also has a chance to interfere with certain diagnostic procedures, limit the ability to breastfeed, and can alter the outcome after pregnancy. 

Transvaginal Mesh

Transvaginal Mesh

Resulting in thousands of lawsuits, transvaginal mesh was originally intended to help women with vaginal prolapse and stress urinary incontinence. However, the FDA finally declared it was doing more harm than good.

Studies show that side effects such as tissue erosion and organ perforation occur at an alarming rate and generally negate the potential benefits of transvaginal mesh. 

Gastric Bypass

Gastric Bypass

The main risk of gastric bypass is the weight of the patients. Most medical procedures are riskier on someone who is overweight, and larger patients are also more susceptible to postsurgical problems, such as pneumonia.

During gastric bypass, it can be difficult to find a vein to administer IV fluids, more anesthetics may be necessary, and there are layers of fat that have to be gone through in order to reach the stomach. 

Spinal Tap

Spinal Tap

Spinal taps are used to detect meningitis, bacteria, bleeding, and other debilitating diseases related to the spine and brain. The patient is poked with a lumbar puncture straight into the spine, and cerebrospinal fluid is then removed and tested.

Spinal taps can cause nerve paralysis even when done right, and when done wrong, total paralysis may ensue. 

Cesarean Section

Cesarean Section

Sometimes a C-section is absolutely necessary for the safety of a mother and her baby. However, if it isn’t a medical necessity, it may not be worth the risk. First and foremost, once a woman has a c-section, she’s going to need one for every subsequent birth.

Additionally, one wrong move with a scalpel can hit nerves, leaving a mother in excruciating abdominal and vaginal pain for months—not necessarily the easiest thing to deal with while trying to take care of a newborn.

Circumcision

Circumcision

“High risk” may be a little bit of an exaggeration, but the fact of the matter is, outside of religious reasons, circumcision is largely unnecessary. Furthermore, circumcised boys have less penis sensitivity than males who don’t have the procedure.

And when the surgery goes wrong, which is admittedly rare, serious problems may arise—such as infection, bleeding, or genital loss. 

Cancer Operations

Cancer Operations

Some candidates that have cancer are able to have their cancer removed via surgery. While it may seem easier than chemotherapy, it comes with risks. The surgery can involve removing an entire organ or group of tissues while even the simplest cancer operation requires meticulous searching for every bit of cancer inside the body.

Dangers lie in infection, loss of organ function, bleeding, blood clots, and the risk that all the cancerous cells may not have been completely removed.  

Brain Surgery

Brain Surgery

Without a doubt, the most dangerous type of medical procedure in the world is brain surgery. These surgeries require removing part of the skull to reach the brain, and sometimes the piece isn’t replaced for several days, like in the case of swelling of the brain.

Infection is the biggest risk, which can be deadly given it already starts in the brain.

Abdominal Exploration

Abdominal Exploration

Abdominal exploration is more common than you’d think. Many are listed as other reasons when the issue is discovered and repaired, but this type of medical procedure has a high mortality and complication rate.

For this reason, it’s important to ask if an abdominal exploration is absolutely necessary when a doctor suggests it.

Pancreatectomy

Pancreatectomy

A pancreatectomy is when the pancreas is partially or completely removed. According to a John Hopkins study, a terrifying 41% of these surgeries ended with complications.

One of the most serious is bleeding post-op, which made food and liquids slow to leave the stomach.

Penile Enlargement

Penile Enlargement

When pumps, creams, and pills don’t work, some men turn to surgical options to enhance their manhood. While there are a few different methods to increase length or girth, there haven’t been nearly enough studies done to prove efficacy, and no prominent medical organization endorses them.

In severe cases, these surgeries can result in less sensitivity, erectile dysfunction, and nerve damage. Additionally, it’s also possible that the scarring from the surgery may actually make the penis shorter. 

Stents

Stents

In most cases, a stent isn’t an option for someone that needs it. They’re installed to open up a clogged artery, but some professionals suggest they’ve been overused in recent years in cases where medication may have been enough.

Some of the most common risks of stents occur from the surgery itself, but you can also have an infection of the vessel. Other risks include a blockage in the artery, re-narrowing of the vessel, and blood clots.

Septal Myectomy

Septal Myectomy

A septal myectomy is a type of open-heart surgery to reduce the thickening of the muscle. Most surgeries involving the heart are terrifying, but this one is particularly scary. The risks of this procedure include infection, heart attack, stroke, and death.

However, patients that undergo this surgery have a much higher chance of survival (compared to those choosing to opt out), making it a necessary but frightening surgery.

Thoracic Aortic Dissection Repair

Thoracic Aortic Dissection Repair

An aortic dissection is a tear in the wall of the body’s main artery, the aorta. This particular procedure repairs the portion of the aorta that runs through the chest.

The surgery itself can trigger a number of complications, including heart failure, stroke, and a further rupture in the aorta.

Esophagectomy

Esophagectomy

Esophagectomy is a procedure to remove part or all of the tube that connects your mouth to your stomach while also reconstructing it using some of another organ.

The risks can range from mild to severe and can include infection, cough, hoarseness, acid or bile reflux, respiratory influx, and difficulties swallowing. 

Bladder Cystectomy

Bladder Cystectomy

A bladder cystectomy is necessary to remove part of (or all) of the bladder. A common risk with these types of surgery includes infection and bleeding, but an infection could lead to peritonitis.

Patients can also experience leakage from the bladder incision site, which can cause several other internal problems. 

Removal of Abdominal Adhesions

Removal of Abdominal Adhesions

After an intestinal surgery, patients can develop painful scar tissue months or years later, and they must be removed via surgery. Complications can include a tear in the bowel, and there’s a chance it won’t alleviate the pain.

Many doctors are choosing not to complete this surgery on patients.

Stomach Ulcer Surgery

Stomach Ulcer Surgery

Anyone with peptic ulcers can tell you that they’re incredibly painful. Sometimes, these ulcers need to be controlled.

This type of surgery isn’t very common because it has exceptionally high risks of complications and mortality.

Back Surgery

Back Surgery

Nearly all back surgeries carry a large risk. While helpful, it can have a number of complications that will affect a patient’s quality of life. Some of the risks include infection, blood clots, heart attack, stroke, and nerve damage.

The nerve damage can result in weakness, paralysis, pain, or loss of bowel or bladder control.

Colectomy

Colectomy

A colectomy is used to remove parts or all of the colon. As with any bowel surgery, risks scar tissue and injury to surrounding organs.

Another terrifying risk is leaking at the incision site, which can cause a leakage inside your body. This can cause infections that can be extremely deadly.

Laparotomy

Laparotomy

A laparotomy is a surgical incision into the abdominal cavity that uses a full-sized incision rather than a minimally invasive approach. This type of procedure is done for a few reasons, from abdominal exploration to a patient that’s had a stroke.

A laparotomy carries a high mortality and complication rate.

Conjoined Twin Separation

Conjoined Twin Separation

This isn’t a surgery many people undergo—it’s actually extremely rare. However, that doesn’t mean it isn’t risky. Most often, conjoined twins share one or more organs, which risks the death of one or both patients.

There are instances of successful surgeries, but it isn’t uncommon for patients to pass during separation.

Craniectomy

Craniectomy

A craniectomy is an intense but sometimes life-saving procedure where a portion of a patient's skull is removed entirely. This is typically done when someone has experienced a severe head injury that has caused swelling and bleeding on the brain. Holes are first drilled into the skull, and then those are connected by cuts with a saw, and finally, a portion of the skull is removed. 

It doesn't take a medical doctor to realize that removing a portion of your skull is a highly risky procedure. Complications of a craniectomy can include bleeding and infection in the brain. While these risks are high, most patients undergoing a craniectomy have already suffered severe brain damage and could die without treatment, which often skews the risk assessment in favor of this procedure. 

Surgical Ventricular Restoration

Surgical Ventricular Restoration

Patients who have experienced extreme heart failure may be offered surgical ventricular restoration as a means of treating damage done to the organ. The procedure involves making incisions into and inflating the heart to correct any deformations in it created by scar tissue. While this can be lifesaving, it's not without risks. 

At the time of the procedure, survival rates of surgical ventricular restoration are very high. However, if surgical ventricular restoration is done in conjunction with other procedures (like bypass surgery), this will increase the amount of stress on the heart and the potential for complications. The real risks come in the long term—patients who undergo surgical ventricular restoration are at a higher risk of a heart attack in the future. 

Coronary Artery Bypass Graft

Coronary Artery Bypass Graft

Coronary artery bypass grafts (also known as coronary revascularization) are one of the most common medical procedures in the United States, but it's also one with some of the highest risks. During the procedure, doctors identify areas in arteries narrowed by plaques. Then, healthy blood vessels are removed from other parts of the body and grafted onto the affected coronary arteries. 

The surgery is complicated because of the blood vessel removal and grafting process, but most complications involve the heart and not the area of the body where healthy blood vessels are removed. These complications include an increased risk of blood clots, stroke, and heart attack. There is also the risk that the patient's body will reject the grafted blood vessels. 

Blausen.com staff (2014). "Medical gallery of Blausen Medical 2014". WikiJournal of Medicine 1 (2). DOI:10.15347/wjm/2014.010. ISSN 2002-4436., CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Epidural Steroid Injections

Epidural Steroid Injections

Some people experience back and neck pain that's so intense they'll do anything to relieve it. However, some of these treatments are not without risk. While epidural steroid injections can help relieve back and neck pain in the short term, it's not useful as a long-term solution and poses some serious risks. 

These epidural injections are performed by making injections directly into the spinal column. This can lead to issues like paralysis, stroke, and even meningitis. Steroid injections are not riskier than any other form of epidural injection, but it's considered to be riskier since this treatment has been proven to be ineffective at treating chronic back pain. It's all risk and no reward. 

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Amniocentesis

Amniocentesis

Amniocentesis is a medical procedure sometimes used on pregnant women to test for genetic abnormalities in their babies. The procedure involves removing a small amount of fluid from the amniotic sac and testing it for signs of genetic defects. While this procedure can very accurately diagnose genetic issues, it's still a risky procedure. 

The rate of miscarriage among women who undergo amniocentesis ranges from 1 in 300 to 1 in 500. Because of this, the procedure should only be a last-ditch effort for instances where doctors are very concerned about severe genetic defects. In other cases, there are safer methods for uncovering any issues with the child. 

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Thyroid Removal Surgery

Thyroid Removal Surgery

The risks of thyroid removal due to the detection of cancer are not an extremely high-risk procedure. While it does carry some risks (like all surgeries), your odds of pulling through are still very good. The real problem with this procedure is that it's often not needed, exposing patients to a low (but completely unnecessary) risk of complications. 

Many medical experts have begun to express doubts about the necessity of some cancer-fighting procedures, especially when it comes to thyroid removal. They argue that many forms of cancer are so slow-growing that removing the affected organ is riskier than waiting to see if the cancer spreads and worsens. Some studies from Japan have indicated that a large percentage of patients with small thyroid tumors don't experience any growth in them. 

Arthroscopic Knee Surgery

Arthroscopic Knee Surgery

Arthroscopic knee surgery involves inserting a small camera into the patient's body via an incision near the knee and using that footage to repair a torn meniscus. While the surgery is minimally invasive and low risk, this is another instance where the riskiness of the procedure comes from the fact that it's frequently ineffective and unnecessary. 

Arthroscopic knee surgery has become a more common treatment for people dealing with arthritis in their knees. However, studies have shown that this procedure is only effective at treating pain from acute meniscus injuries—it's been shown to be much less effective at treating pain that comes from age and use (as is the case with arthritis). 

Prostate Cancer Screenings & Surgery

Prostate Cancer Screenings & Surgery

It's completely understandable that patients want to take cancer seriously—it can be a devastating and life-ending diagnosis. However, some doctors are starting to argue that it's possible to be too serious and proactive when it comes to detecting and treating some forms of the disease, like prostate cancer. 

Prostate cancer, in particular, is often slow-growing and poses no immediate health risks. Because the risks of prostate removal surgery can include incontinence and sexual problems, many medical professionals support the idea of "watchful waiting" before any drastic measures are taken on a patient. 

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Hysterectomy

Hysterectomy

Hysterectomies (the complete removal of the uterus) were once a common treatment option for women experiencing heavy bleeding and severe uterine pain due to fibroids. While effective, no surgery is without risks. Thankfully, we now have much less invasive procedures to help alleviate these problems, such as uterine artery embolization. 

While a hysterectomy is not the most high-risk procedure on this list, it's now frequently unnecessary, thanks to newer procedures. So, undergoing one could be a low but pointless risk you don't need to take. That being said, not every woman experiencing these symptoms is a good candidate for these newer procedures, so there may be some instances where a hysterectomy is genuinely necessary. 

Hormone Replacement Therapy for Menopause Symptoms

Hormone Replacement Therapy for Menopause Symptoms

It used to be common practice for women to undergo hormone replacement therapy to help lessen persistent symptoms caused by menopause—like hot flashes, dryness, and trouble sleeping. However, researchers have been uncovering some previously unknown risks associated with this practice which is causing some doctors to rethink prescribing it to menopausal women. 

A few studies have now been released that links hormone replacement therapy to things like heart problems and a higher risk of cancer or stroke. For some women with particularly severe symptoms, this may be a risk worth taking, but for others, alternative treatments are worth trying before moving on to HRT. 

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