Electrocautery is a specialized form of treatment frequently used in surgery to eliminate unwanted or harmful tissue. It is a safe procedure that burns and seals blood vessels using electricity. A small probe containing a direct or alternating electric current is used to reduce or stop bleeding during surgery or following an injury. Cauterization is also useful in the removal of abnormal tissue growth and the prevention of infection during surgery. 

The two types of electrocautery are monopolar and bipolar. In monopolar electrocautery, only one electrode (positive) is attached to the probe to concentrate the current at the designated site. The two modes used in this procedure are cutting (heat is produced rapidly) and coagulation (produces less heat). With bipolar electrocautery, both electrodes (negative and positive) are attached to the probe. The electrodes are located near the distal end to enable the inclusion of only the tissue located between the two electrodes.

Also Known As

  • Cauterization
  • Electrocauterization


Preparation & Expectation Before Surgery

The doctor will explain the kinds of tests, treatments, or procedures that will be used. S/he will also give the benefits and risks involved in electrocautery. 

A patient meant to undergo surgery is advised to cease the intake of blood-thinning drugs such as ibuprofen, aspirin, and warfarin. The patient should not eat nor drink anything several hours before the surgery. Smoking is also discouraged several days leading up to the procedure. The doctor will want to know whether a patient is having a pacemaker or prosthetic joint. Information about any allergic reactions to numbing medications such as lidocaine, epinephrine, or novocaine should be provided.

Types, Purpose & Procedure

There are several uses for electrocautery treatment: 

  • During surgery, electrocauterization can be used to cut through soft tissue for the surgeon to gain access to a site. In the event of excessive bleeding, the surgeon can use cauterization to seal off the blood vessels to prevent further blood loss and keep the site clean.
  • Electrocautery can be used to eliminate abnormal tissue growth like tumors. The technique is particularly crucial for growths situated in sensitive areas like the brain.
  • Frequent nosebleeds can be treated by cauterization. Often, nose bleeding is caused by exposed nasal blood vessels. Even when the nose is not bleeding, the surgeon may decide to cauterize it to prevent future bleeding.
  • Electrocautery is used to treat genital or other body warts and only needs one cauterization treatment. Warts like those found on the foot may cause pain when a person is walking or standing. Note that warts can also be removed via freezing (cryotherapy) or medicine.

Depending on the extent and type of the surgery, the surgeon will administer a local or general anesthesia. To protect against harmful electric current effects, the surgeon places a grounding pad on the body (often the thigh). The grounding pad site should be free of oils or lotions, and for a male patient, the surgeon will remove any hair using clippers. The surgeon also cleans the surgery site and uses gel to coat the skin to prevent burns. 

The surgeon uses a small probe containing a mild electric current to destroy or seal tissue. The tip of the probe is thin, hot, and resembles a needle. No electric current enters a patient's body. Instead, only the probe's tip touches the tissue, thus sealing or removing the tissue it affects.

The probe kills the skin cells on the site, and the area may look white, swollen, or charred in case of warts’ treatment. If further tests are required, the surgeon will send a skin sample to the laboratory. The procedure generally takes approximately 30 minutes.

Risks, Side Effects & Complications

There are minimal risks involved with electrocautery. Some of these risks include bleeding at the site, infection, swelling, mild discomfort, and pain. The surgeon can administer antibiotics and pain medications to reduce infection and pain, respectively. 

Some patients may also experience long-term complications with general anesthesia. 

Scar tissue may also develop depending on the type of surgery.

After Care, Recovery & Outcome

In case of continuous bleeding in the first 24 hours following surgery, the patient can use a piece of clean cloth or tissue to gently apply pressure on the affected area for about 10 minutes. This process can be repeated for another 10 minutes, and if bleeding does not stop, one should seek medical attention. Immediate medical attention should also be sought in case there is swelling, redness, a hot feeling, or persistent pain in the treated area. 

The patient may keep the wound clean using soap and water to prevent infection. A bandage can be used to cover the wound for protection. However, the bandage can get wet and should therefore be changed. The scab that forms over the treated area will drop off by itself, leaving behind a small scar.

Electrocautery stops bleeding during surgery or after an injury. The heat from the probe can sterilize the site hence no need for stitches in the case of abnormal tissue growth. The procedure effectively removes tumors or warts.  

Treatment of warts results in a wound forming on the site and may take one to six weeks to heal depending on the size of the wound. The bigger the wart, the longer it takes for the wound to heal. More prominent warts may need further surgical treatment. Seek medical attention if warts refuse to go away or recur.

Recovery often takes between two to four weeks but may last longer if a larger site was involved. Recovery time also depends on the amount of tissue removed.