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Symptoms and consequences of a retained sponge

One type of surgery complication is having a sponge or other surgical item get left inside you. While medical professionals continue to develop new ways of reducing incidents, retained sponges continue to present a risk for surgery patients. If you experience symptoms of retention, it is important to seek medical attention right away, as complications from this can be serious.

Symptoms may be delayed

While some patients experience symptoms soon after the surgery, others can take months, sometimes even years, to surface. In most cases, indications of retention can include pain, swelling and tenderness. These complaints can be symptomatic of many problems. For this reason, healthcare providers can have difficulty identifying the correct cause, especially if significant time elapsed since the surgery.

Potential consequences

Depending on the site where the sponge was left, consequences may include infections, obstructions, fistulas, internal bleeding and other problems. The likelihood of these is increased by the fact that surgery sites are already especially vulnerable to inflammatory responses. Sponges also come in a variety of sizes; larger, towel-like sponges can be especially troublesome as they can twist around interior organs. In many cases, patients with retained sponges need to have major surgery, such as cutting out portions of the intestine.

Causes and solutions

While hospitals have developed count systems to keep track of sponges and other surgical items, in practice there are several factors that contribute to the ongoing incidence of errors. At times, a counting protocol may be implemented incorrectly. This is especially likely if the surgery is an emergency procedure, is very long, or has complications arise in the course of it. A sponge soaked in blood is also easily overlooked in a visual inspection. Another factor that contributes to retained sponges is a lack of communication among the members of the surgery team, where not everyone is clear as to who is responsible for counting and double-checking.

Two technological ways of cutting down in incidents of retained sponges are radio-frequency and electrical tracking. Under these systems, each sponge has an embedded radio-frequency tag or a barcode that can alert surgical teams to missing items before the incision is closed. While tracking is not exorbitantly expensive, some hospitals are nevertheless concerned about the cumulative costs for a high number of surgeries.

If you are experiencing swelling or pain after your surgery that is outside the norm for your type of procedure, you should see a doctor as soon as possible. To learn more about the types of compensation you may be entitled to for a retained sponge, consult a knowledgeable attorney in your area.

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