What Is a Harmonic Scalpel?

Rolando Braza

A harmonic scalpel is a surgical knife that uses ultrasound vibrations to simultaneously cut and cauterize tissue. It uses these vibrations to break through even very dense tissue, and in many procedures is less invasive than a standard scalpel would be; its ability to cauterize, or seal the wound as it goes also usually improves recovery time and may also make the procedure more efficient and accurate. This sort of scalpel is a lot more than just a knife, though. In most cases it’s attached to an ultrasonic transducer, a generator, and a foot pedal, which from a practical perspective doesn’t make it very portable. It’s not always appropriate for every sort of procedure, either, and surgeons who wish to use it normally have to undergo a lot of training.

A harmonic scalpel will be used during surgical procedures.
A harmonic scalpel will be used during surgical procedures.

Basic Concept

The simplest and most traditional way to perform surgery is with a standard steel scalpel, which opens the body cavity and can be used to excise or at least expose various goings-on inside, whether in tissues or in organs. Technological advances have brought many more options to the table when it comes to scalpels and knives. Not only are they options in a range of sizes, there are also tools, like the harmonic scalpel, capable of doing far more than just cutting.

A harmonic scalpel may be used during breast reduction surgery.
A harmonic scalpel may be used during breast reduction surgery.

Harmonic options are usually available in a variety of blade sizes but they all work in about the same way. They must be guided by the hand of the surgeon the same as any other knife, but ultrasound vibrations give added pressure, which means that a surgeon doesn’t have to push as hard, and they also work to immediately cauterize the incision, which reduces the patient’s blood loss. Opening the skin normally creates an outpouring of blood. In addition to harming the patient, blood loss can also obscure the surgeon’s view. More or less instant cauterization both promotes faster healing and reduces the chance of surgical error.

A harmonic scalpel may be used during a tummy tuck procedure.
A harmonic scalpel may be used during a tummy tuck procedure.

Main Components

In most cases this sort of scalpel is thought of as a system rather than a singular tool. The system typically is composed of a hand-held ultrasonic transducer, generator, hand switch, foot pedal, and scalpel that serves as the cutting instrument. The knife itself is usually wired to the other components, which normally get their power from an electrical outlet. Wireless models are sometimes available but these normally need regular charging when not in use.

Primary Benefits

Ultrasonic scalpels have generally been a welcome addition to the array of systems available to a surgeon in addressing the different medical conditions of a patient. It can provide a surgeon greater cutting precision while also allowing a surgeon to cut through thicker tissues more efficiently. Visibility problems can be reduced due to less smoke emitted by the system while it operates; smoke is sometimes a problem with other cauterizing equipment. The surgical procedure can also be simplified with fewer instrument swaps, although a harmonic scalpel is not usually as easy to move as the Bovie — a competing apparatus used in electrosurgery for coagulation.

A patient who undergoes a procedure using this sort of scalpel typically will experience less swelling, bleeding, and bruising that usually occur when a traditional scalpel is used. Blood vessels are also sealed at a temperature lower than what electrosurgery and laser surgery require, thus reducing damage to the lateral thermal tissues of the patient and the charring and extreme drying of the blood vessels. This usually results in shorter surgery times and recovery periods. p>

Importance of Practice and Experience

The success of any procedure is usually related at least in part to the surgeon’s knowledge and experience with the tools, and this applies to harmonic-style scalpels as well. Surgeons usually need to take the initiative to extensively train on and gain mastery of this technology. They can attend lectures and demonstrations of proper use, for instance, and may also be able to attend practical seminars with hands-on demonstrations. Some of these learning sessions are sponsored by the tool's primary manufacturers while others are put on by hospitals independently.

Using a harmonic scalpel can provide a surgeon greater cutting precision.
Using a harmonic scalpel can provide a surgeon greater cutting precision.

You might also Like

Readers Also Love

Discussion Comments


I have this friend at work who got a face lift a year ago. She told me that they used this thing called a harmonic scalpel device to perform the operation.

Honestly until then, I had never heard of this device. When she explained how it worked it sounded like something out of a science fiction movie – like a laser device that could cut through tissue without leaving any bleeding behind.

She had taken two weeks off for the nip and tuck procedure and when she returned I couldn’t notice any markings anywhere on her body where the surgery had taken place. This device is that good, and from what she tells me, there is minimal pain as well.

Post your comments
Forgot password?