What Is a Richardson Retractor?

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  • Written By: Sandi Johnson
  • Edited By: John Allen
  • Last Modified Date: 06 October 2019
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A Richardson retractor is a handheld medical instrument used during chest or abdominal surgery. Such retractors feature a handle and a long shaft with a wide hook, known as a blade, at the end. Surgeons use the blade to grasp soft tissue such as skin, muscle, or internal organs. Once the soft tissue is secured, the surgeon pulls and holds the handle to keep soft tissues back and away from the surgical area.

Different surgeries and different patients require specially designed surgical tools. As such, retractors come in a variety of sizes, widths, and blade styles. For deep surgeries in a human torso, a Deaver retractor or Richardson retractor allows a surgeon to shift one side of an incision, including necessary muscles and organs, to access the surgical area. Hooks or blades for such surgeries typically need to be wider, with larger curves than retractors designed for more shallow surgical areas, to better reach deeper into the abdominal cavity.

The size and width of a Richardson retractor directly relates to the size of the patient and the surgery to be performed. For example, pediatric abdominal surgery requires much smaller instruments than adult abdominal surgery. Likewise, veterinary surgeries often require shorter handles and smaller blades to accommodate different internal organ configurations. Dentists also use a variation of a Richardson retractor — although understandably smaller in scale — for use in dental surgeries.


Retractors such as a Richardson retractor should not be confused with thoracic retractors such as rib spreaders. Rib spreaders operate as distractors, prying and forcing bone or tissue out of the way. Comparatively, a Richardson retractor is a true retractor in that its intended purpose is to gently lift and hold tissues in place, away from areas exposed for surgical repair or removal. Beyond holding back tissues, the use of the various types of retractors is as much a matter of preference for the surgeon as it is a matter of surgery type and patient size.

The original design of a Richardson retractor called for a single blade end. A modified design, called the Richardson-Eastman retractor, features blades at either end, with a handle in the middle. In surgeries requiring the separation of an incision with tissues moved to either side of the surgical area, a Richardson-Eastman retractor provides such abilities. Richardson-Eastman retractors, unlike the original, are typically sold in sets of two or more, rather than one. The range of sizes available with Richardson-Eastman retractors also varies depending on the specific surgical region and the size of the patient.


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