July 30, 2011

Tonsillectomy Airway Fire

ABC News reported in 2008 about a California family suing doctors as well as Conmed, an electro-surgical instrument company, for an airway fire that occurred on April 18, 2003 on an 8 years old child during a routine tonsillectomy surgery.

Apparently, an electrocautery device was being used to remove the tonsils when the endotracheal tube caught fire resulting in burns to the child's mouth and airway (no death). It is suspected that the electrocautery device during the surgery either burned a hole into the endotracheal tube where it encountered oxygen resulting in the fire or there was a leak around the endotracheal tube which caught fire. The jury found the surgeon to be negligent, but returned a defense verdict for the device manufacturer Conmed. The other defendants settled.

Use of electrocautery is still popular among ENT surgeons removing tonsils, but has been abandoned by an increasing number of surgeons (including our practice) over the past few years due to risk of airway fire as well as concern for unnecessary thermal injury to surrounding normal peritonsillar tissues. Electrocautery produces temperatures between 400 to 600 degrees Centigrade which both cuts and stops bleeding simultaneously. However, as can be seen in this unfortunate case, it can also burn through an endotracheal tube and cause an airway fire.

Airway fire is another reason why laser tonsillectomy is rarely performed as the risk is the same if not greater than electrocauterization.

Our office uses coblation technology to remove tonsils. Coblation uses a radiofrequency plasma field to cut and stop bleeding simultaneously at near room temperatures thereby avoiding risk of airway fire as well as thermal injury to surrounding oral tissues.

Of note, there are about 500 cases of operating room fires related to use of electrosurgical instruments every year of which 20-30 causes serious injuries.

Read the ABC News report here.

Watch a video showing how a tonsillectomy is performed here!

Fauquier blog
Fauquier ENT

Dr. Christopher Chang is a private practice otolaryngology, head & neck surgeon specializing in the treatment of problems related to the ear, nose, and throat. Located in Warrenton, VA about 45 minutes west of Washington DC, he also provides inhalant allergy testing/treatment, hearing tests, and dispenses hearing aids.

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