What is a Retractor?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 13 November 2018
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A retractor is a medical device which is used to hold the edges of the surgical field in place for the purpose of keeping the field clear. There are dozens of different types of retractors in active use, and some surgeons have specific preferences depending on the areas of the body they operate on, their training, and their experiences. These devices are available from medical supply catalogs which carry surgical supplies.

There are a couple of ways in which a retractor can be used. The device may act simply like a spreader, holding tissue aside so that a surgeon can clearly visualize the surgical field. For example, during abdominal surgery, once an incision is made, a surgeon may insert a retractor and use it to pull the incision apart to see inside the body. Retractors can also be used to keep specific organs back; in the abdominal surgery example, for instance, a retractor could be used to keep the bowel out of the way while the surgeon works on the liver.

Retractors are generally curved, and may resemble hoops, S-curves, or angled paddles. The handle is usually designed to be held comfortably by hand. A surgeon or assistant may hold a retractor in place, or the device may be clamped to free up hands and keep the area around the surgical field clear. These devices can also be handled by a medical robot which will hold the retractor steady for the surgeon.


These devices are also used in dental surgery to hold the mouth open and to keep the tongue back. For patients, this can sometimes be rather uncomfortable, as patients may be awake for dental procedures and the retractor can feel awkward. The device also makes it difficult to communicate, so a patient may want to make arrangements with the dentist to create a signal which can be used if something feels wrong.

Like other instruments used in surgery, a retractor is designed to be sterilized for safety. Surgical steel is commonly used to manufacture these tools, and they are made without seams, cracks, and other vulnerable areas which could create opportunities for bacteria to settle. After each patient, a retractor is thoroughly cleaned and sterilized in a device such as an autoclave to kill any microorganisms which may be present. This reduces the risk of transferring infectious agents from patient to patient during surgical procedures, when the body tends to be especially vulnerable.


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