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Holzheimer RG, Mannick JA, editors. Surgical Treatment: Evidence-Based and Problem-Oriented. Munich: Zuckschwerdt; 2001.

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Surgical Treatment: Evidence-Based and Problem-Oriented.

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Complications of laparoscopic surgery

, M.D. and , M.D.

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Laparoscopic surgery has experienced a boom during the 1990’s. In the example of cholecystectomy, the benefits of the laparoscopic approach were so readily apparent that laparoscopic surgery became the standard of care without any randomized prospective trial comparing it to the prior gold standard, open cholecystectomy. The enthusiasm for laparoscopic surgery has been tempered somewhat with the reports of unique complications associated with this approach. Complications of laparoscopic surgery can be grouped into the following three categories:


complications of access;


physiologic complications of the pneumoperitoneum; and


complications of the operative procedure.

Complications of laparoscopic access

The first step in a laparoscopic procedure is to access the peritoneal cavity in order to establish pneumoperitoneum. One method of access, using the Veress needle, is considered the closed technique. After nasogastric suction and drainage of the urinary bladder, a stab incision is made at the umbilicus, followed by the blind passing of a Veress into the abdominal cavity. Position of the needle within the peritoneal cavity can be confirmed by aspiration through a water filled syringe and by the water drop test. Once the surgeon is comfortable that the needle is in the peritoneal cavity, pneumoperitoneum is established and trocars are inserted.

A second method of access is the open technique. After making the umbilical skin incision, the surgeon incises the anterior abdominal fascia and the peritoneum under direct vision. The surgeon can then assess the peritoneal cavity for any adhesions prior to insertion of the first trocar. The surgeon can either suture the fascia closed around the trocar or can use the wedge-shaped Hasson trocar to establish a seal in order to allow the development of pneumoperitoneum.

Access to the peritoneum is not an innocuous aspect of a laparoscopic procedure. Jansen et al. (1) found that of the 145 complications reported in 25,764 laparoscopic gynecological cases, 57% were caused while obtaining access. The rate of complication associated with Veress needle or trocar insertion was approximately 0.3%. Furthermore, complications resulting from Veress needle and trocar insertion include injuries to major retroperitoneal vessels and to bowel, which are associated with significant morbidity and mortality. Other more minor complications resulting from Veress needle and trocar insertion include abdominal wall hematoma, wound infection, and fascial dehiscence and herniation.

Mayol et al. (2) carried out a prospective trial of 403 patients to assess which factors were predictive of a complication with the placement of trocars. The surgeons performing the procedures were allowed to use clinical judgement in deciding between the closed or open technique to insert the umbilical trocar, and prior abdominal surgery was not considered an absolute contraindication to closed technique. At three months of follow-up, the rate of complication related to access of the abdominal cavity was 5%, with the most frequent complications being abdominal wall hematoma (2.0%), umbilical hernia (1.5%), and umbilical wound infection (1.2%). The rate of penetrating injuries was 0.2%. Using multivariate analysis, the authors determined that use of closed technique was the only factor associated with complications (odds ratio = 6.0, p = 0.04), whereas age, gender, obesity, prior abdominal surgery and the laparoscopic procedure performed were not associated. Nuzzo et al. (3) presented a series of 330 patients in which the open technique was used exclusively with no incidence of injury to a major vessel or to bowel with trocar insertion. Open technique leads to less frequent wound complications in laparoscopic surgery. Though major vascular injuries and bowel injuries with trocar placement are quite rare, use of the open technique may decrease the incidence of these dangerous complications.

Physiologic complications of pneumoperitoneum

Pneumoperitoneum causes several local and systemic effects, as reviewed by Hackam and Rotstein (4). The majority of these effects are beneficial for patient recovery, such as an observed decrease in postoperative pain and metabolic stress response, as measured by serum glucose and insulin levels (5), and the hepatic catabolic response, measured by functional hepatic nitrogen clearance (6). Laparoscopic surgery has some side effects which may be detrimental. Carbon dioxide pneumoperitoneum causes respiratory acidosis, presumably from absorption of the gas. Patel et al. (7) found that patients undergoing laparoscopic cholecystectomy were at high risk for developing deep venous thrombosis (DVT), with 40% having calf DVT and 15% having axial vein DVT on follow-up screening.

The pneumoperitoneum required for laparoscopic surgery leads to several important hemodynamic alterations (811). Cardiac output decreases by up to 30% during laparoscopic surgery, due to a decrease in stroke volume. Pneumoperitoneum also causes an increase in systemic vascular resistance. As a result, mean arterial pressure remains unchanged or increases up to 16%. Patients with marginal cardiac performance may warrant invasive cardiac monitoring to assure they tolerate pneumoperitoneum. Joris et al. (11) demonstrated that these hemodynamic changes were at least in part due to intravascular volume status, and could be ameliorated by preloading patients with isotonic fluid and achieving pneumoperitoneum in the supine position rather than the reverse-Trendelenberg position. Furthermore, treating patients with clonidine blunted the increase in mean arterial pressure, systemic vascular resistance and the release of catecholamines.

Complications of operative procedure


Cholecystectomy was the first operation in general surgery in which laparoscopy replaced open surgery as the standard of care. We have the advantage of reviewing a decade of experience with laparoscopic cholecystectomy. A statewide database from Connecticut (12) noted dramatic increases in the number of cholecystectomies performed once laparoscopic cholecystectomy became the standard of care. The inference is that the threshold for performing cholecystectomy has been lowered with the advent of laparoscopic cholecystectomy. In addition, Russell et al. (12) noted that the rate of major bile duct injuries during open cholecystectomy increased after laparoscopic cholecystectomy became the standard of care, suggesting the open procedure was being reserved for the most difficult cases. Thus, it is difficult to make comparisons between the open procedure and the laparoscopic procedure, as the patient populations to which they are offered are likely quite different.

The most important complication related to the operative procedure of laparoscopic cholecystectomy is biliary injury. Major bile duct injury during laparoscopic cholecystectomy is associated with local factors (e.g. acute cholecystitis, gallstone pancreatitis, and aberrant anatomy) (12), and experience of surgeon (12, 13). A recent prospective series of 10,174 patients from Switzerland confirmed the findings of earlier studies (14). While the overall rate of common bile duct injury was 0.31%, this rate decreased in a statistically significant manner (from 0.49% during the first 10 cases to 0.04% after 100 cases) with number of procedures performed.

The classic mechanism for major bile duct injury has been presented by Lee et al. (15), and involves misidentification of the common bile duct or common hepatic duct for the cystic duct. This leads to dissection of the common hepatic or common bile duct, with the associated possibility of devascularization, and results in loss of part of the biliary tree. A second common method of injury is delayed stricture related to thermal injury. The first attempt at a repair for a major biliary injury offers the best chance for the patient. Repair of a major bile duct injury should be undertaken by an experienced hepatobiliary surgeon, even if this involves transfer to another facility for definitive care. However, Russell et al. (12) reported that 89% of patients with major bile duct injury underwent repair at the hospital of origin, and only 5% of these required further interventions.

Laparoscopic antireflux surgery

The ability to perform antireflux procedures laparoscopically has led to an increase in popularity of these procedures. The average operating time reported in series (1622) ranges from 71 minutes to 202 minutes, with all authors reporting a significant decrease in the length of the procedure as experience increases. Complications, perioperative and postoperative, occur with a frequency of 4% to 16%. The most commonly reported intraoperative complications include perforation of either the esophagus or stomach, splenectomy, and pneumothorax. The rate of splenectomy is much lower in laparoscopic than in open antireflux procedures (20).

The most impressive benefit of laparoscopic surgery appears to be in the postoperative period. Patients have lower incidences of wound, cardiac and pulmonary complications. Postoperative hospital stay is limited to two to four days, and accounts for the reduced overall costs of the laparoscopic procedure (22). A common postoperative complication is dysphagia, occurring in 22% to 57% of patients, with 4% to 32% requiring dilatation. This has led several authors to advocate routine mobilization of part of the greater curvature of the stomach, to allow for a more floppy wrap (17, 18, 21). Other postoperative complications include paraesophageal herniation, atelectasis and pneumonia.

Laparoscopic inguinal hernia repair

There are several methods available for laparoscopic repair of inguinal hernia. The method most commonly used is the trans-abdominal pre-peritoneal herniorrhaphy (TAPP). First, the peritoneal cavity is entered and pneumoperitoneum is established. Next, the pre-peritoneal space is dissected, a large polypropylene mesh is fixed into place with staples, and the peritoneum is closed over the mesh. This approach has obvious advantages in the setting of recurrent hernia, in that the anterior approach requires dissection through scar. The TAPP approach also has a potential benefit in bilateral hernias, as Voitk (23) noted that of all patients presenting with unilateral hernia by physical examination, 30% were discovered at laparoscopy to have bilateral hernias. Complications occur during and after TAPP at a rate of 6% to 31% (2328). Excluding laparoscopic access associated injuries, intraoperative complications include bladder injury, injury to the epigastric vessels and to the spermatic cord.

Perhaps the most relevant postoperative complication is recurrence of the inguinal hernia. Large series have reported recurrence rates of TAPP at 1.0% to 2.9% (minimum follow-up of 26 months) (2325). The serious complication of mesh infection occurs rarely, with Litwin et al. (26) reporting one out of 535 patients and Leibl et al. (25) reporting three out of 2700 patients. The ironic complication of port site herniation, the substitution of one hernia for another, also occurs infrequently. Litwin et al. (26) reported three port site hernias occurring in 535 patients who underwent TAPP. Urinary retention occurs in 3% to 7% of patients (2428) postoperatively. Other postoperative complications include hematoma/seroma and neuralgia.

Wellwood et al. (27) conducted a large (200 patients in each arm) randomized prospective trial comparing TAPP to Lichtenstein tension-free mesh repair. They concluded that TAPP led to a lower rate of wound infection, groin/thigh pain, genital swelling, local numbness, and constipation. Urinary retention did occur in a greater percentage of the patients undergoing TAPP. Finally, TAPP cost significantly more than the Lichtenstein repair per patient.

Laparoscopic appendectomy

Open appendectomy is a well-established and safe procedure for the treatment of acute appendicitis. As such, proponents of the laparoscopic procedure need to present some benefit, be it decreased cost, decreased morbidity, or sooner return to work, to warrant use of this approach. A critical review (29) and a meta-analysis (30) of randomized controlled trials did not establish any conclusive results. The rate of complications were similar. Slim et al. (29) found the most common complication in open appendectomy was wound infection, while the most common complication of the laparoscopic procedure was intraabdominal abscess. Garbutt et al. (30) found no difference in the rate of intraabdominal abscess. Recent studies (31, 32) have found a trend toward increased intra-abdominal infection in the laparoscopic group.

Laparoscopic colectomy

The promise of diminished postoperative discomfort and morbidity, along with decreased hospital length of stay has lead to the application of laparoscopic surgery to bowel resection. Many series describe laparoscopic assisted procedures, in which the dissection and ligation of blood vessels are carried out laparoscopically. The bowel is then delivered through a small incision, and the resection and anastomosis are performed extracorporeally.

In patients undergoing laparoscopic bowel surgery, the rates of morbidity (12% to 25%) and the mortality (0% to 2.6%) appear to be similar to those obtained after open surgery (3337). Intraoperative complications include enterotomy, mesenteric bleeding, and ureteric injury. Conversion to open procedure occurs 8% to 25% of the time. Bennet et al. (36) have used multivariate analysis to show that surgeons who have performed over 40 cases have lower rates of intra-operative and post-operative complications. Postoperative length of stay is commonly reported as six days. The utility of laparoscopy in oncologic surgery has been called into question. Of the series reviewed (3335) recurrence rates were 4% to 6%. Most recurrences occurred in patients with advanced disease, either stage C lesions or in association with diffuse peritoneal metastasis.


As in all aspects of medicine, laparoscopic surgery requires experience on the part of the surgeon in order to afford patients the best possible outcome. The anatomy visible through a laparoscope differs in perspective from that presented in the open case, basic techniques such as suturing have to be relearned, and there is a decrease in tactile sense as an instrument is interposed between fingertip and tissue. Several surgeons have defined a learning curve for laparoscopic procedures after which the rate of complications plateau (13, 23, 26) and most series note a decrease in the time necessary to complete a procedure from the first cases to the last. Adequate instruction and super-vision would seem prudent as a surgeon ascends the learning curve. Ultimately, complications can be minimized but never avoided. Expeditious diagnosis and appropriate management of complications are requisite of all surgeons.


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Copyright © 2001, W. Zuckschwerdt Verlag GmbH.
Bookshelf ID: NBK6923


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