What is a Surgical Wound?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A surgical wound is a wound associated with a surgical site. Surgical wounds are a point of vulnerability for patients recovering from surgery, as infectious material can enter the wound and cause complications. In addition, sometimes surgical sites undergo a phenomenon called wound dehiscence, where the incision reopens as a result of poor healing or strain on the stitches. Management of surgical wounds is an important part of post-surgical care for patients, both in the hospital and during recovery at home.

Stitches are used to close surgical wounds.
Stitches are used to close surgical wounds.

When surgeons make an incision, they place it with care to access the area of the body they are interested in while keeping the surgical wound as small as possible. In endoscopic surgeries, very small surgical wounds are created, with just enough room to introduce cameras and tools. Open surgeries require a larger incision to allow the surgeon to clearly visualize the interior of the body.

A dehisced wound is a surgical wound that has opened during the healing process.
A dehisced wound is a surgical wound that has opened during the healing process.

Surgical wounds are created in a sterile environment. Every part of the process of making the incision is controlled to limit infection risks, with the surgeon using sterile instruments and keeping the wound clean as the incision is made. Once the surgery is complete, the wound is closed with stitches. Stitches may extend several layers into the body, depending on how deep the surgery was and where the surgeon operated. The patient is usually given prophylactic medications to prevent infectious organisms from gaining a foothold in the surgical wound.

During recovery, the surgical wound will be regularly checked for any signs of inflammation, infection, and other complications. In the hospital, nursing staff will periodically change the patient's bandages, inspecting the wound carefully during bandage changes. They look for warning signs like heat, swelling, gaping between the stitches, unpleasant odors, and changing colors. In some cases, drains will be inserted into the surgical wound to allow fluids to drain while the patient recovers. The surgical drains are also checked during bandage changes for warning signs of infections.

Once patients are sent home, they are responsible for caring for their surgical wounds. They are usually directed to keep the wound clean and dry, to change bandages periodically and to inspect the wound when changing the dressings. Periodic follow-up visits will be made so the surgeon can monitor progress and eventually remove the stitches. Absorbable sutures can be used, but often these sutures take so long to dissolve that the surgeon may go ahead and remove them once the patient's surgical site has healed.

Sutures should be left in until a medical professional removes them.
Sutures should be left in until a medical professional removes them.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


I've had a shunt put in a small surgical wound for drainage and it was not as bad as it sounds.

My little wound became slightly infected and was swollen and weeping a little. So, they opened it a little and put in a shunt, which was really just a piece of cotton leading away from the infection. It was quite icky, to tell the truth, as the fluids leaked away and it itched more than anything.

But, it only had to be drained once and then it healed right up and now I barely have a scar.

Of course, I was on antibiotics as well, so they probably helped more than the shunt.


My mother had a surgery recently when she had a cancerous mole removed from her shoulder. Her doctor asked if she preferred to have it done in a hospital or in his clinic and she chose the clinic. It turned out her GP used to be a surgeon, so it was a good choice.

I was allowed to watch which was a very interesting experience, if a bit scary. He used quite a lot of care because he didn't want the wound to be too big, but he had to take out the whole tumor so it was quite sizable.

He put stitches in three layers to close up the wound in the hope that it would heal cleanly and without scarring too much.

Unfortunately her surgical wound healed too well and the scar built up so that it pulls a bit and hurts her. I hope she doesn't end up having to get more surgery to correct it.

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