The septoplasty operation is one of the most misunderstood surgical procedures that lay people, and even many physicians have. Some people even equate septoplasty with having a nose job, which is not true. Although, some people use having a crooked septum as
an excuse to undergo a rhinoplasty, septoplasty, done correctly, can help patients breathe better, and more importantly, sleep better.
Understanding the Anatomy
In order to fully appreciate if septoplasty is the right procedure for you, you must understand the anatomy of how it’s done.
The nasal septum is the midline cartilaginous structure that divides the two halves of your nasal cavity. The part in the back of the septum is made of bone. Whenever the septum is crooked to a significant degree, your nose can be stuffy, and a septoplasty can be offered if medical therapy doesn't work.
However, having a crooked septum doesn't mean that you'll have a stuffy nose, or that you'll need a septoplasty. No one has a perfectly straight septum. There are other parts of your nasal anatomy that contributes to your ability to breathe, which includes your nasal turbinates and your nostrils. The turbinates are wing-like structures that jut in from the side-walls of your nose that look like wings. They normally warm, filter, smooth and humidify the air that you breathe. Inside this structure is the bone and the outside is a mucous membrane lining. The middle part is made of very vascular tissues that can swell tremendously when filled with blood. This is regulated by your involuntary nervous system. This nervous system normally swells and shrinks the turbinates, alternating from side to side, every few hours (called the nasal cycle).
Do You Have Flimsy Nostrils?
The other structure that is often overlooked is your nostrils. For most people, breathing in causes a mild vacuum effect that causes a mild collapse and a constriction of the nostrils. But in some people with either flimsy or weakened nostrils (from a prior rhinoplasty), they collapse very easily, even with a slight bit of inspiration. If you are one of these people, you may benefit from nasal dilator strips (Breathe-rite is one brand). Sometimes these strips are not strong enough, or it can irritate the skin. Another option is to use internal nasal dilators which work much better. Some of the more common brands are Breathewitheez, Nasal Cones, and Nozovent.
What's Involved with Septal Surgery?
The septoplasty procedure can be done in conjunction with a turbinate procedure. There are many ways to perform a septoplasty, but the most important point is that it should be done well. The septum is covered on both sides by a mucous membrane. After an incision is made inside the nose on the mucous membrane, this layer is peeled away from the septal cartilage. The other side is also entered, which creates two tunnels on either side of the septal cartilage. The crooked part of the septal cartilage is next removed. Some surgeons either soften the cartilage or flatten it out and place it back, and others leave it out completely. In many cases, a small portion of bony spur that juts out at the base of the septal cartilage is also removed. The last part of the operation is where different surgeons use different techniques. Traditionally, thin plastic sheets with or without soft sponge-like packs are placed against the septum on both sides to keep the mucous membrane together for proper healing. If a large clot of blood forms between the two mucous membrane layers, the remaining cartilage may lose it's blood supply and literally melt away.
Because the entire procedure in done inside the nose (or endoscopically), there is no swelling, bruising or changes to the outside of the nose or face (unless a rhinoplasty is done simultaneously).
What to Expect After Surgery
Nasal packing, if placed, are removed anywhere from 1-3 days after the procedure. Many patients report that this is one of the most uncomfortable parts of undergoing this procedure. Some surgeons, like myself, don't use any packs or splints using the following method: compressing the two mucous membrane layers by sewing the two layers together using an absorbable suture, like a quilting stitch. This way, nothing needs to be removed, and you're breathing much better right after the surgery. It's expected with this procedure that your nose will get clogged up after a day or two with accumulation of blood, mucous and debris.
This operation is usually performed as an outpatient procedure, so you'll go home a few hours after surgery. It's usually performed under general anesthesia, but can also de done under local anesthesia with sedation for certain situations. Most people can go back to work after a day or two. Heavy straining or lifting should be restricted for about one week. In my practice, I see the patients about 2 days after the surgery, when the nose is cleaned of all the accumulated debris. Some people need a second cleaning 1-2 weeks later.
Typically, it may take a few weeks to months to feel the full benefits of this operation. During the first few weeks, crusts will build up and fall out as wounds heal. This is also the time when the swelling from the surgery goes away. Afterwards, scarring and tightening of the soft tissues can take weeks to months. You may have your ups and downs in the first few weeks, but you should see consistent improvement by 3-4 weeks.
Most people don't use any pain medications, but one is prescribed just in case. You'll probably be more bothered by the sore throat from having a breathing tube placed during intubation.
What Are The Risks?
Complications are rare, but with any surgical procedure, there is a small chance of infection or bleeding. There is also a small risk any time someone undergoes general anesthesia, which includes, allergic or medication reactions or airway problems. In terms of overall risk, it's riskier when you cross the street. Other very rare complications such as smell loss or a hole in your septum have been reported.
A septoplasty, if done properly, is one of the most gratifying procedures for both the patient and the surgeon. Success rates are very high. However, there are a few percent of patients where nasal congestion still persists, or it comes back after a few weeks to months. In this situation, there are two main possible reasons: there is persistent turbinate swelling due to inflammation, or you have flimsy nostrils. There are treatment options for both theses conditions.