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5 operations you don't want to get -- and what to do instead

Posted Mar 21 2009 3:59pm
Two of these surgeries may impact sexual function. Below is an excerpt from the CNN article. The article points out that as women we MUST be our own best advocate by educating ourselves and obtaining second opinions.


By Curt Pesmen

Maybe I'm the wrong ex-patient to be telling you this: Experimental surgery erased Stage III colon cancer from my shell-shocked body six years ago. But even I've got to admit that all is not well in America's operating rooms: At least 12,000 Americans die each year from unnecessary surgery, according to a Journal of the American Medical Association report. And tens of thousands more suffer complications.


Surgery is a trauma, regardless of the surgeon's skills.

The fact is, no matter how talented the surgeon, the body doesn't much care about the doc's credentials. Surgery is a trauma, and the body responds as such -- with major blood loss and swelling, and all manner of nerve and pain signals that can stick around sometimes for months.

Those are but a few reasons to try to minimize elective surgery. And I found even more after talking with more than 25 experts involved in various aspects of surgery and surgical care, and after reviewing a half-dozen governmental and medical think tank reports on surgery in the United States. Here's what you need to know about five surgeries that are overused and alternative solutions that may be worth a look.

Hysterectomy

There's long been a concern, at least among many women, about the high rates of hysterectomy (a procedure to remove the uterus) in the United States. American women undergo twice as many hysterectomies per capita as British women and four times as many as Swedish women.

The surgery is commonly used to treat persistent vaginal bleeding or to remove benign fibroids and painful endometriosis tissue. If both the uterus and ovaries are removed, it takes away sources of estrogen and testosterone. Without these hormones, the risk of heart disease and osteoporosis rises markedly. There are also potential side effects: pelvic problems, lower sexual desire and reduced pleasure. Hysterectomies got more negative press after a landmark 2005 University of California, Los Angeles study revealed that, unless a woman is at very high risk of ovarian cancer, removing her ovaries during hysterectomy actually raised her health risks.

So why are doctors still performing the double-whammy surgery? "Our profession is entrenched in terms of doing hysterectomies," says Ernst Bartsich, M.D., a gynecological surgeon at Weill-Cornell Medical Center in New York. "I'm not proud of that. It may be an acceptable procedure, but it isn't necessary in so many cases." In fact, he adds, of the 617,000 hysterectomies performed annually, "from 76 to 85 percent" may be unnecessary.

Although hysterectomy should be considered for uterine cancer, some 90 percent of procedures in the United States today are performed for reasons other than treating cancer, according to William H. Parker, M.D., clinical professor of gynecology at UCLA and author of the '05 study. The bottom line, he says: If a hysterectomy is recommended, get a second opinion and consider the alternatives.

What to do instead

Go knife-free. Endometrial ablation, a nonsurgical procedure that targets the uterine lining, is another fix for persistent vaginal bleeding. Health.com: Your guide to fibroid fixes

Focus on fibroids. Fibroids are a problem for 20 to 25 percent of women, but there are several specific routes to relief that aren't nearly as drastic as hysterectomy. For instance, myomectomy, which removes just the fibroids and not the uterus, is becoming increasingly popular. And there are other less-invasive treatments out there, too.

In France in the early 1990s, a doctor who was prepping women for fibroid surgery -- by blocking, or embolizing, the arteries that supplied blood to the fibroids in the uterus -- noticed a number of the benign tumors either soon shrank or disappeared, and, voila, Jacques Ravina, M.D,. had discovered uterine fibroid embolization.

Since then, interventional radiologists in the United States have expanded their use of UFE (typically a one- to three-hour procedure), using injectable pellets that shrink and "starve" fibroids into submission. Based on research from David Siegel, M.D., chief of vascular and interventional radiology at Long Island Jewish Medical Center, New Hyde Park, New York, 15,000 to 18,000 UFEs are performed here each year, and up to 80 percent of women with fibroids are candidates for it.

Another new fibroid treatment is high-intensity focused ultrasound, or HIFU. This even less invasive, more forgiving new procedure treats and shrinks fibroids. It's what's called a no-scalpel surgery that combines MRI (an imaging machine) mapping followed by powerful sound-wave "shaving" of tumor tissue.

Episiotomy

It can sound so simple and efficient when an OB-GYN lays out all the reasons why she performs episiotomy before delivery. After all, it's logical that cutting or extending the vaginal opening along the perineum (between the vagina and anus) would reduce the risk of pelvic-tissue tears and ease childbirth. But studies show that severing muscles in and around the lower vaginal wall (it's more than just skin) causes as many or more problems than it prevents. Pain, irritation, muscle tears, and incontinence are all common aftereffects of episiotomy.

Last year the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists released new guidelines that said that episiotomy should no longer be performed routinely -- and the numbers have dropped. Many doctors now reserve episiotomy for cases when the baby is in distress. But the rates (about 25 percent in the United States) are still much too high, experts say, and some worry that it's because women aren't aware that they can decline the surgery.

"We asked women who'd delivered vaginally with episiotomy in 2005 whether they had a choice," says Eugene Declercq, Ph.D., main author of the leading national survey of childbirth in America, "Listening to Mothers II," and professor of maternal and child health at the Boston University School of Public Health. "We found that only 18 percent said they had a choice, while 73 percent said they didn't." In other words, about three of four women in childbirth were not asked about the surgery they would soon face in an urgent situation. "Women often were told, 'I can get the baby out quicker,'" Declercq says, as opposed to doctors actually asking them, 'Would you like an episiotomy?'"

What to do instead

Communicate. The time to prevent an unnecessary episiotomy is well before labor, experts agree. When choosing an OB-GYN practice, ask for its rate of episiotomy. And when you get pregnant, have your preference to avoid the surgery written on your chart.

Get ready with Kegels. Working with a nurse or midwife may reduce the chance of such surgery, experts say; she can teach Kegel exercises for stronger vaginal muscles, or perform perineal and pelvic-floor massage before and during labor. Health.com: Me and my Kegels

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