Scalpel versus electrosurgery for major abdominal incisions

Kittipat Charoenkwan, Zipporah Iheozor-Ejiofor, Kittipan Rerkasem, Elizabeth Matovinovic
Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2017 June 14, 6: CD005987

BACKGROUND: Scalpels or electrosurgery can be used to make abdominal incisions. The potential benefits of electrosurgery may include reduced blood loss, dry and rapid separation of tissue, and reduced risk of cutting injury to surgeons. Postsurgery risks possibly associated with electrosurgery may include poor wound healing and complications such as surgical site infection.

OBJECTIVES: To assess the effects of electrosurgery compared with scalpel for major abdominal incisions.

SEARCH METHODS: The first version of this review included studies published up to February 2012. In October 2016, for this first update, we searched the Cochrane Wounds Specialised Register, the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL), Ovid MEDLINE (including In-Process & Other Non-Indexed Citations), Ovid Embase, EBSCO CINAHL Plus, and the registry for ongoing trials ( We did not apply date or language restrictions.

SELECTION CRITERIA: Studies considered in this analysis were randomised controlled trials (RCTs) that compared electrosurgery to scalpel for creating abdominal incisions during major open abdominal surgery. Incisions could be any orientation (vertical, oblique, or transverse) and surgical setting (elective or emergency). Electrosurgical incisions were made through major layers of the abdominal wall, including subcutaneous tissue and the musculoaponeurosis (a sheet of connective tissue that attaches muscles), regardless of the technique used to incise the skin and peritoneum. Scalpel incisions were made through major layers of abdominal wall including skin, subcutaneous tissue, and musculoaponeurosis, regardless of the technique used to incise the abdominal peritoneum. Primary outcomes analysed were wound infection, time to wound healing, and wound dehiscence. Secondary outcomes were postoperative pain, wound incision time, wound-related blood loss, and adhesion or scar formation.

DATA COLLECTION AND ANALYSIS: Two review authors independently carried out study selection, data extraction, and risk of bias assessment. When necessary, we contacted trial authors for missing data. We calculated risk ratios (RR) and 95% confidence intervals (CI) for dichotomous data, and mean differences (MD) and 95% CI for continuous data.

MAIN RESULTS: The updated search found seven additional RCTs making a total of 16 included studies (2769 participants). All studies compared electrosurgery to scalpel and were considered in one comparison. Eleven studies, analysing 2178 participants, reported on wound infection. There was no clear difference in wound infections between electrosurgery and scalpel (7.7% for electrosurgery versus 7.4% for scalpel; RR 1.07, 95% CI 0.74 to 1.54; low-certainty evidence downgraded for risk of bias and serious imprecision). None of the included studies reported time to wound healing.It is uncertain whether electrosurgery decreases wound dehiscence compared to scalpel (2.7% for electrosurgery versus 2.4% for scalpel; RR 1.21, 95% CI 0.58 to 2.50; 1064 participants; 6 studies; very low-certainty evidence downgraded for risk of bias and very serious imprecision).There was no clinically important difference in incision time between electrosurgery and scalpel (MD -45.74 seconds, 95% CI -88.41 to -3.07; 325 participants; 4 studies; moderate-certainty evidence downgraded for serious imprecision). There was no clear difference in incision time per wound area between electrosurgery and scalpel (MD -0.58 seconds/cm2 , 95% CI -1.26 to 0.09; 282 participants; 3 studies; low-certainty evidence downgraded for very serious imprecision).There was no clinically important difference in mean blood loss between electrosurgery and scalpel (MD -20.10 mL, 95% CI -28.16 to -12.05; 241 participants; 3 studies; moderate-certainty evidence downgraded for serious imprecision). Two studies reported on mean wound-related blood loss per wound area; however, we were unable to pool the studies due to considerable heterogeneity. It was uncertain whether electrosurgery decreased wound-related blood loss per wound area. We could not reach a conclusion on the effects of the two interventions on pain and appearance of scars for various reasons such as small number of studies, insufficient data, the presence of conflicting data, and different measurement methods.

AUTHORS' CONCLUSIONS: The certainty of evidence was moderate to very low due to risk of bias and imprecise results. Low-certainty evidence shows no clear difference in wound infection between the scalpel and electrosurgery. There is a need for more research to determine the relative effectiveness of scalpel compared with electrosurgery for major abdominal incisions.

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