What is a retained swab?

Sometimes, due to human error or clinical negligence, a surgical swab may be left inside the body of a patient after an operation has concluded. An incidence of a retained swab is most likely to occur during a gynaecological or abdominal procedure.

While retention of surgical swabs is uncommon, the number of officially reported incidents may not accurately reflect the actual number of cases, as reporting in the UK occurs on a voluntary basis.

Surgeon counting the number of swabs inside a patient during an operation

What are swabs used for in surgery?

Swabs, gauze, and surgical sponges are used to absorb blood and other bodily fluids during surgery. Controlling blood flow helps to prevent pooling and leaking, and maintains unobstructed visibility of the surgical site.

Any surgery where bleeding is expected may require the use of swabs, such as procedures involving removal of organs, joints, or growths, or incisions in areas containing blood vessels. Childbirth-related surgeries, such as Caesarean section and episiotomy, often require swabs to stem bleeding.

Surgical swabs are also used to retain organs during operations. Gauze is packed in cavities or openings created during surgery to prevent displacement.

What may result in a swab being left behind after surgery?

It is standard procedure for each swab to be counted and noted in patient notes prior, during, and after a surgical procedure. This should be undertaken by two medical professionals to mitigate against human error.

However, human error and clinical negligence are the main reasons for surgical swabs left in the body. The size of medical swabs, inaccurate counting, and the failure to correctly follow and report the counting procedure can also increase the likelihood that a swab is missed.

A male patient suffering post-operative symptoms due to a retained swab

What happens if swabs are left in the body after surgery?

All surgical swabs used in the UK contain a radiopaque material that will show up in CT scans, X-rays, and other radiographic scans to make detection easier.

Once a surgical swab has been discovered inside a patient, another surgical procedure will be required to remove the swab.

Morbidity rates rise the longer a swab is left inside. This means pain and suffering, higher chances of infection and other complications, and risk of death. The period of convalescence needed, and the complexity of the removal procedure, will also likely increase.

Risks and complications of retained surgical swabs

The warm, damp environment inside the body will facilitate bacterial growth. Cells within the body can also react to the foreign material, triggering an immune response.

When a retained swab becomes attached to tissue within the body as it heals, it can potentially lead to tumour growths, inflammation, and significant discomfort. Infections can also occur.

Symptoms of retained swabs

Diagnosis of a retained swab can be tricky, as symptoms often present as common infection symptoms, including:

  • fever
  • pain
  • inflammation
  • a general feeling of being unwell

As a result, some retained swabs may not be diagnosed for months, or even years, after the surgery occurred.

Once the presence of a swab is known, removing it can be an invasive and complicated procedure. Surgery on any scale introduces the risk of infection and requires physical and psychological recovery.

A patient having their temperature taken, after reporting symptoms suggestive of a retained swab

What to do if you believe you have retained swabs after surgery

If you discover that you have retained swabs after surgery, and this has caused you harm, you may be entitled to claim compensation. However, as the process requires medical and legal understanding, your best course of action will be to obtain professional help.

At Devonshires Claims, our clinical negligence solicitors have over 20 years’ experience handling complex surgical error claims and other medical negligence compensation cases. They can help determine whether your claim is valid, and then represent you on a no-win, no-fee basis.

For a free case evaluation, contact Devonshires Claims today by calling 0333 900 8787, sending an email to admin@devonshiresclaims.co.uk or completing our online form.

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If you're considering legal action, then lets talk. We can discuss your circumstances and provide you with a free case evaluation to help you determine whether a claim is the best course of action.

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