A hysterectomy is an operation to remove a woman's uterus. A woman may have a hysterectomy for different reasons, including:
- Uterine fibroids that cause pain, bleeding, or other problems
- Uterine prolapse, which is a sliding of the uterus from its normal position into the vaginal canal
- Cancer of the uterus, cervix, or ovaries
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding
- Chronic pelvic pain
- Adenomyosis, or a thickening of the uterus
Hysterectomy for noncancerous reasons is usually considered only after all other treatment approaches have been tried without success.
Types of Hysterectomy
Depending on the reason for the hysterectomy, a surgeon may choose to remove all or only part of the uterus. Patients and health care providers sometimes use these terms inexactly, so it is important to clarify if the cervix and/or ovaries are removed:
- In a supracervial or subtotal hysterectomy, a surgeon removes only the upper part of the uterus, keeping the cervix in place.
- A total hysterectomy removes the whole uterus and cervix.
- In a radical hysterectomy, a surgeon removes the whole uterus, tissue on the sides of the uterus, the cervix, and the top part of the vagina. Radical hysterectomy is generally only done when cancer is present.
The ovaries may also be removed -- a procedure called oophorectomy -- or may be left in place.
Surgical Techniques for Hysterectomy
Surgeons use different approaches for hysterectomy, depending on the surgeon’s experience, the reason for the hysterectomy, and a woman's overall health. The hysterectomy technique will partly determine healing time and the kind of scar, if any, that remains after the operation.
There are two approaches to surgery – a traditional or open surgery and surgery using a minimally invasive procedure or MIP.
Open Surgery Hysterectomy
An abdominal hysterectomy is an open surgery. This is the most common approach to hysterectomy, accounting for about 65% of all procedures.
To perform an abdominal hysterectomy, a surgeon makes a 5- to 7-inch incision, either up-and-down or side-to-side, across the belly. The surgeon then removes the uterus through this incision.
On average, a woman spends more than three days in the hospital following an abdominal hysterectomy. There is also, after healing, a visible scar at the location of the incision.
There are several approaches that can be used for an MIP hysterectomy:
- Vaginal hysterectomy: The surgeon makes a cut in the vagina and removes the uterus through this incision. The incision is closed, leaving no visible scar.
- Laparoscopic hysterectomy: This surgery is done using a laparoscope, which is a tube with a lighted camera, and surgical tools inserted through several small cuts made in the belly or, in the case of a single site laparoscopic procedure, one small cut made in the belly button. The surgeon performs the hysterectomy from outside the body, viewing the operation on a video screen.
- Laparoscopic-assisted vaginal hysterectomy: Using laparoscopic surgical tools, a surgeon removes the uterus through an incision in the vagina.
- Robot-assisted laparoscopic hysterectomy: This procedure is similar to a laparoscopic hysterectomy, but the surgeon controls a sophisticated robotic system of surgical tools from outside the body. Advanced technology allows the surgeon to use natural wrist movements and view the hysterectomy on a three-dimensional screen.
Comparison of MIP Hysterectomy and Abdominal Hysterectomy
Using an MIP approach to remove the uterus offers a number of benefits when compared to the more traditional open surgery used for an abdominal hysterectomy. In general, an MIP allows for faster recovery, shorter hospital stays, less pain and scarring, and a lower chance of infection than does an abdominal hysterectomy.
With an MIP, women are generally able to resume their normal activity within an average of three to four weeks, compared to four to six weeks for an abdominal hysterectomy. And the costs associated with an MIP are considerably lower than the costs associated with open surgery, depending on the instruments used and the time spent in the operating room. Robotic procedures, however, can be much more expensive. There is also less risk of incisional hernias with an MIP.
Not every woman is a good candidate for a minimally invasive procedure. The presence of scar tissue from previous surgeries, obesity, and health status can all affect whether or not an MIP is advisable. You should talk with your doctor about whether you might be a candidate for an MIP.
Risks of Hysterectomy
Hysterectomy is a low-risk surgery. Most women who undergo hysterectomy have no serious problems or complications from the surgery. However, as with any surgery, hysterectomy can result in complications for a small minority of women. Those complications include:
- Urinary incontinence
- Vaginal prolapse (part of the vagina coming out of the body)
- Fistula formation (an abnormal connection that forms between the vagina and bladder)
- Chronic pain
Other risks from hysterectomy include wound infections, blood clots, hemorrhage, and injury to surrounding organs, although these are uncommon.
What to Expect After Hysterectomy
Most women are told to abstain from sex and avoid lifting heavy objects for six weeks after hysterectomy.
After a hysterectomy, the vast majority of women surveyed feel the operation was successful at improving or curing their main problem (for example, pain or heavy periods).