Signs of a Retained Foreign Body

Signs of a retained foreign body that patients commonly experience include severe pain or discomfort, redness or discoloration, fever, infection, and swelling. Leaving foreign objects inside patients after surgery is described as a “never event,” meaning it’s preventable and should never occur. However, thousands of patients in Las Vegas and the rest of the country become victims of this surgical error every year. Retained foreign bodies can cause life-threatening complications, so it’s important to learn more about their signs and symptoms after surgery so you can seek timely treatment and contact a medical malpractice lawyer early enough if you wish to take legal action.

The Most Common Causes of Retained Foreign Bodies in Nevada

A retained foreign body is any object left inside a patient’s body after the completion of an operation. An object is considered retained after complete skin closure occurs following the invasive procedure. According to multiple medical studies, sponges are the most commonly retained foreign bodies after surgery. Sponges are easily left behind because they absorb fluids and blend in with a patient’s tissues. Other surgical objects that can be left inside patients include clamps, retractors, drains, needles, scalpels, cotton swabs, gauze pads, surgical towels, scissors, catheters, and guide wires.

Retained foreign objects can also consist of small parts that have broken off from larger surgical instruments. For example, catheter fragments can be left inside a patient if the surgeon applies excessive force when removing the catheter or if the device has a manufacturing defect. But who is liable for a defective medical device? Any party that interacted with the device before it was used on you could be held liable. That could include the manufacturer, retail supplier, hospital, and doctor.

The common root causes of retained foreign bodies include:

Absence of Proper Policies and Procedures

Retained foreign bodies can occur due to a lack of good operating room practices. Leadership failures can lead to incomplete or inadequate education of medical staff and a culture of poor surgical practices that doesn’t promote a safe environment for patients.

Failure to Follow the Right Counting Procedures

Even when good policies and procedures are in place, doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals may fail to comply with them. For example, in emergency surgery, the medical team may rush through preparing and counting the surgical instruments. If a complication occurs requiring a change in the surgical procedure, the operation team may quickly change their tools.

The probability of the occurrence of an error rises in such circumstances. The team could easily fail to recognize an item has fallen into or remained in the patient’s body. They could forget to count the surgical items or miscount them.

Communication Failures

Many studies have attributed cases of retained surgical bodies to poor communication within the surgical team. Communication failures could occur due to several factors, such as lack of closed-loop communication, hierarchical problems, and intimidation. Surgical procedures that involve different teams of medical professionals rotating in and out of operating rooms may also cause communication problems.

When the relevant patient or treatment information isn’t transmitted to other members of the medical team, the patient could leave the operating room and even be discharged from the hospital with a surgical item retained.

With cases of retained foreign bodies typically stemming from negligence, you may be wondering — can you sue for a surgical error? You can file a medical malpractice claim in Las Vegas if you or a loved one sustains an injury resulting from a surgical error caused by negligence or carelessness.

Retained foreign objects are avoidable surgical errors. Leaving surgical items in patients unintentionally frequently causes injuries and points to negligence by the surgeons, other medical professionals, or the healthcare facility. You can hold the at-fault parties responsible by suing for medical malpractice.

Common Signs and Symptoms of a Retained Foreign Body

Surgical bodies left in a patient’s body can have significant adverse effects. They can damage blood vessels, organs, and other structures and cause serious internal injuries and illnesses. The damage that the surgical items do depends on the type of material and their location in the body. Internal damages could be fatal if not discovered and treated in good time.

While cases vary, many victims of this type of medical malpractice experience similar symptoms. Depending on circumstances, these symptoms could occur immediately after surgery or take weeks, months, or years after the procedure to surface. The common signs and symptoms include:

Pain or Discomfort in the Affected Area

Several studies have found pain or discomfort to be the most common sign and symptom of retained foreign bodies. A system review of 254 cases of retained surgical sponges found pain to be the most common symptom. Another study of retained surgical materials that was published in the Polish Journal of Surgery in October 2022 concluded that it was rare for a retained body in the abdomen to cause any discomfort. The study also concluded that abdominal pain was the most common symptom that victims of retained foreign bodies experienced.

While it’s normal to experience some pain or discomfort after undergoing surgery, the sensations are usually different and more intense if they result from a retained foreign body. Victims of retained bodies may experience excessive and persistent post-operative pain or soreness close to the surgical site, which may start suddenly. For instance, a surgical sponge left in the abdomen or pelvis may cause chronic abdominal pain, pelvic pressure, and dyspepsia. The pain and discomfort from a retained surgical item often intensify with time and continue long after you would’ve been expected to recover.

Retained surgical items may cause pain and discomfort as they exert pressure on tissues, cause obstruction, organ perforation, infection, or migrate through your body.

Swelling or Inflammation

Retained foreign bodies can manifest as a painful lump, swelling, or inflammation in the area around the retained item. You may experience abdominal bulging, distention, or swollen lymph nodes.

In many cases of retained foreign bodies, the items are eventually detected after victims notice a palpable mass. In the study of 254 cases of retained surgical sponges, a palpable mass was among the top three signs and symptoms experienced, occurring in 27% of the patients. The reaction that an item left inside a patient’s body induces can cause the body to wall off the item, resulting in a mass that the patient can feel.

The inflammatory reactions that retained foreign bodies cause can lead to other complications, like bowel obstructions, constipation, and difficulty urinating. Sharp surgical items like scalpels and needles can puncture an organ in your abdomen and cause peritonitis.

Peritonitis is inflammation of the peritoneum, the tissue lining your abdomen or belly. Symptoms of the condition include a swollen or sore belly, severe belly pain that worsens when you move, nausea, vomiting, fluid in your belly, reduced urine or bowel movements, thirst, and loss of appetite. Peritonitis can lead to serious health issues, like multiple organ failure.

Redness or Discoloration

A foreign object left in your body after surgery may result in discoloration or colored streaks in the incision area. The area may also be deep red or seem to be turning red over time. A retained object can lead to abscess formation. An abscess is a pocket of pus in a confined tissue space. Redness is a common symptom of abscesses.

Fever or Infection

A retained foreign object can lead to a post-operative infection. Signs of infection that a victim may experience include fever, pus in the incision area, the surgical site being warm to the touch, wound drainage, tenderness or soreness, and fast heart rate. Victims of retained surgical items may develop frequent infections after surgery. Generally, the longer the retention time, the greater an infection’s potential impact on the victim.

The retained surgical item may be sterile. However, its parts may be inaccessible to your body’s immune mechanisms, allowing the reproduction and accumulation of bacteria. For instance, bacteria can reproduce within the interstices of a surgical sponge and cause sepsis, abscesses, or fistulas.

Difficulty Breathing or Swallowing

When a surgical item, such as a surgical sponge, is left inside a patient’s chest region, the patient may develop respiratory distress. A retained surgical item could cause shortness of breath, even when you’re not engaging in a strenuous activity. Other basic functions like eating and swallowing may also become increasingly difficult.

Other Symptoms

Other signs and symptoms of retained foreign items that you may experience include:

  • Tar-like stools
  • Headaches
  • Unpleasant odor from the incision site
  • Coughing up or vomiting blood
  • Numbness in the feet or hands
  • Stitches coming apart

Once a foreign item has been detected, patients typically have to undergo additional surgery and treatment to remedy the issue, accruing extra medical costs. About 95% of the incidents of retained foreign objects reported to the Joint Commission from 2005 to 2012 led to additional medical care or extended hospital stays. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services estimated the cost of removing one retained surgical item to be $63,631 per hospital stay in 2007.

When to Seek Medical Attention

It’s crucial to seek medical attention as soon as possible if you suspect you’re suffering from a retained foreign object after surgery. The sooner you start the treatment to retrieve the foreign object, the higher the chances of the treatment being successful. Waiting increases the risk of complications.

Your surgeon will have told you what to expect during your recovery after surgery. Seek medical attention if you notice anything unexpected, such as new symptoms, the existing symptoms persisting or worsening after treatment, or you’re experiencing a general health decline after your surgery.

Types of Foreign Bodies

Retained foreign bodies can consist of different materials.

Metal or Glass Fragments

Many surgical instruments and objects are made of metal. These include forceps, retractors, scalpels, needles, surgical clips, clamps, and guide wires. Metal fragments can break off these objects and be left behind inside a patient. Although most metals are inert, those that oxidize can easily cause inflammation.

Any object in the operating room can be accidentally left inside a patient. As a result, even glass fragments could remain in the patient. Glass foreign bodies can cause delayed healing, persistent pain, and infection.

Wood or Plant Material

Retained foreign bodies can also consist of organic material, such as wood and plant material. Plant fibers are commonly used to make surgical items like cotton sponges, swabs, gauze, and foam materials. The reactions they produce when left inside the body may be more detectable than those of metal fragments.

Wood foreign bodies have the highest potential to cause infection and inflammation due to their organic and porous nature. They provide an excellent medium for the growth of microorganisms. Wooden foreign bodies are usually challenging to detect despite the advancement of imaging techniques.

Plastic or Synthetic Materials

Many retained surgical items are made of plastic. These include parts of uterine manipulators used in gynecological surgeries, catheters, drains, bite blocks, and surgical suction tips. Synthetic materials are increasingly being used to replace plant material in the manufacture of surgical materials like swabs and sponges. Synthetic medical sponges may also produce more detectable reactions than metal fragments when left in a patient’s body.

You can seek compensation for all the expenses and losses in Nevada through a medical malpractice lawsuit. A Las Vegas medical malpractice lawyer can help you prove that a healthcare provider acted negligently and the negligence caused your injuries and losses. When your lawyer helps you successfully pursue a medical malpractice case, the damages you could recover include medical expenses, including future treatment costs, lost income, reduced earnings capacity, pain and suffering, disfigurement, and lower quality of life.

If you have a loved one who died after sustaining an injury from a retained surgical body, you could file a wrongful death claim to recover the losses that resulted from the person’s death.

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Joseph J. Wirth

Joseph J. Wirth is the founding senior partner of Mainor Wirth Injury Lawyers in Las Vegas, Nevada. Representing injured victims throughout the state, Joe has recovered millions on behalf of his clients and has earned his reputation as a highly-respected member of the legal community.

Years of Experience: More than 15 years
Nevada Registration Status Active

Bar Admissions: State Bar of Nevada Lawyer Advertising Advisory Committee, Member 2008-Present Nevada Justice Association, Associate Member 2007-Present Nevada State Bar, Associate Member 2006-Present American Association for Justice, Associate Member 2006-Present

author-bio-image author-bio-image
Joseph J. Wirth

Joseph J. Wirth is the founding senior partner of Mainor Wirth Injury Lawyers in Las Vegas, Nevada. Representing injured victims throughout the state, Joe has recovered millions on behalf of his clients and has earned his reputation as a highly-respected member of the legal community.

Years of Experience: More than 15 years
Nevada Registration Status Active

Bar Admissions: State Bar of Nevada Lawyer Advertising Advisory Committee, Member 2008-Present Nevada Justice Association, Associate Member 2007-Present Nevada State Bar, Associate Member 2006-Present American Association for Justice, Associate Member 2006-Present