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What Is a Surgical Emergency?

By Lori Smith
Updated May 17, 2024
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A surgical emergency generally means that a person is in need of an urgent, life-saving operation. Sometimes, an automobile collision or other traumatic accident that creates the necessity for extraordinary medical intervention. Internal bleeding because of blunt force trauma, for example, often requires immediate repair. Other times, a spontaneous or unforeseen problem within the body, such as a ruptured appendix, causes an individual's condition to become critical. Regardless of the injury or illness that creates the surgical emergency, in many cases, a patient may die unless an operation is performed.

An operation does not guarantee that a critically ill patient will survive a trauma or recover from illness. Sometimes the injury is irreparable. On many occasions, however, doctors are able to successfully respond to a surgical emergency. Medical response teams act very quickly to save lives.

When surgeries are elective or non-urgent in nature, the patient and his or her family usually have plenty of time to ask questions and make decisions about a medical treatment plan. When a surgical emergency arises, however, there is often little opportunity to ponder alternatives to an operation. The reason for this is that it is often the only viable option for preserving a patient's life.

Following a serious accident, individuals are usually transported by an ambulance or medical helicopter to a hospital's emergency department. When trauma to the body is causing a life-threatening condition, doctors may conduct an operation in an attempt to repair the damage caused by the trauma. For example, internal bleeding — which affects internal organs — can generally be remedied only with surgery.

Not all urgent medical situations arise as a result of trauma, however. The spontaneous rupture of an appendix, a bowel obstruction or an ectopic pregnancy, for example, can often be fatal if prompt medical intervention is not received. Fortunately, most patients can fully recover following a surgical emergency if treatment is administered without delay.

Due to the unexpected nature and seriousness of a surgical emergency, many patients and family members feel a sense of dread and fear when these situations arise. Even though there is a tremendous sense of urgency, however, the mere declaration of a surgical emergency does not always mean that a patient can expect an extended period of incapacitation or disability. In some cases, recovery can be very quick.

Depending on the illness or injury a patient is diagnosed with, the type of surgical intervention necessary may be a common, simple, minimally invasive procedure. In fact, patients may feel better within days of surgery. Adversely, without prompt care, the prognosis may be grim. In certain cases, a delay in treatment can lead to long-term disability or death.

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