Cauterization Definition and Tools


Cauterization has been used as a method of wound closure since ancient times. Severed limbs suffered in battle were burned to stop bleeding and, while they did not have a concept of bacteria at the time, cauterization reduced infection. Cauterization is still used in medicine and surgery today though its practice and methods have advanced since early times.

Cauterization Definition

Stedman’s Medical Dictionary lists the cauterization definition as “the act of cauterizing.” When one looks up the cauterize definition, it lists “to burn with a cautery.” In the same text, a cautery is “an agent or device used for scarring, burning, or cutting the skin or other tissues by means of heat, cold, electric current or caustic chemicals.” Traditionally to cauterize something was to burn it with a heat source, but newer methods have expanded this cauterization definition.

Cautery Tools

Many general surgeries are performed with the help of an electrocautery device known as a Bovie (after the surgeon who developed it). A Bovie electrocautery tool is used in many surgeries of the chest, abdomen, and extremities when cutting through skin and fascia is needed. The cauterization tool uses electricity to both cut and instantly cauterize small blood vessels. While a scalpel could cut just as well, the surgical field would soon be filled with blood from a number of severed capillaries. While a Bovie electrocautery tool would not be appropriate to cauterize large blood vessels, it has greatly shortened the duration of surgical procedures.

Cauterization with Lasers

Lasers are being called upon more and more frequently in medical and surgical procedures. When lasers are used for cutting skin, they also cauterize small blood vessels. Not only does the laser provide very precise incisions both in terms of width and depth, but the surgical field stays clear since capillaries are cauterized by the heat of this concentrated light energy.

Cold Cauterization

While heat is the traditional cauterization agent, cold can be used as well. Often liquid nitrogen or other supercooled gas/liquid is used to freeze off abnormal collections of cells. Cold cauterization overlaps in many ways with the process known as cryotherapy. Warts and other lesions can be cauterized in this way.

Chemical Cauterization

Chemicals such as strong acids and bases can be used to destroy abnormal tissue growths. Collectively these are known as chemical cauterization.

Advantages of the Cauterization Procedure

Cauterization not only closes small blood vessels and prevents bleeding, the process also reduces the risk of infection in some cases. Since the heat, cold, or chemicals destroys cells of the body, so too does it destroy cells of bacteria and fungi. Therefore if you are using one of these techniques to cauterize the skin, the microorganisms that live on the skin will be killed as well. In essence you are sterilizing a small part of the skin as it is being cauterized.

Disadvantages of the Cauterization Procedure

The primary disadvantage of the cauterization procedure is that healthy tissue may be burned, frozen, or destroyed by the cauterization. While techniques have been developed to minimize unintended cauterization, if deeper, non-skin tissues and organs are cauterized, their function can be disrupted and their exterior can be damaged.

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