Using a scalpel compared with electrosurgery for making surgical incisions in the abdomen

During abdominal operations, surgeons may need to make cuts (incisions) in the body. This can either be done by using scalpels or electrosurgery. A scalpel is an extremely sharp bladed instrument used to cut the skin and underlying tissue. Electrosurgery is a method of separating tissues using electricity. An electrical current is passed from the tip of the instrument which causes the tissue to rapidly heat up. As they heat up, the cells burst and vaporise. The surgeon will move the instrument along the tissue, causing more cells to be destroyed and a cut, or incision, to be created. The potential benefits of using electrosurgery include reducing the amount of blood lost, dry and rapid separation of tissues, and a reduced risk of surgeons accidentally cutting themselves. The disadvantages of this technique include the possibility of poor wound healing, there are concerns that large or excessive scars may form, and it is thought that there is the potential for an increase in the risk of adhesions forming. Adhesions are potentially painful links of tissue that develop between the site of the incision and organs or other surfaces in the abdomen.

This review found that making an abdominal incision using electrosurgery appeared to be as safe as using a scalpel although more research is needed to draw a firm conclusion. There was not enough evidence to draw conclusions on a decrease in blood loss, pain, or the time taken to make the cut.

Authors' conclusions: 

Current evidence suggests that making an abdominal incision with electrosurgery may be as safe as using a scalpel. However, these conclusions are based on relatively few events and more research is needed. The relative effects of scalpels and electrosurgery are unclear for the outcomes of blood loss, pain, and incision time.

Read the full abstract...

Scalpels or electrosurgery can be used to make abdominal incisions. The potential benefits of electrosurgery include reduced blood loss, dry and rapid separation of tissue, and reduced risk of cutting injury to surgeons, though there are concerns about poor wound healing, excessive scarring, and adhesion formation.


To compare the effects on wound complications of scalpel and electrosurgery for making abdominal incisions.

Search strategy: 

We searched the Cochrane Wounds Group Specialised Register (searched 24 February 2012); The Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL) (The Cochrane Library 2012, Issue 2); Ovid MEDLINE (1950 to February Week 3 2012); Ovid MEDLINE (In-Process & Other Non-Indexed Citations 23 February 2012); Ovid EMBASE (1980 to 2012 Week 07); and EBSCO CINAHL (1982 to 17 February 2012). We did not apply date or language restrictions.

Selection criteria: 

Randomised controlled trials (RCTs) comparing the effects on wound complications of electrosurgery with scalpel use for the creation of abdominal incisions. The study participants were patients undergoing major open abdominal surgery, regardless of the orientation of the incision (vertical, oblique, or transverse) and surgical setting (elective or emergency). Electrosurgical incisions included those in which the major layers of abdominal wall, including subcutaneous tissue and musculoaponeurosis (a strong sheet of fibrous connective tissue that serves as a tendon to attach muscles), were made by electrosurgery, regardless of the techniques used to incise the abdominal skin and peritoneum. Scalpel incisions included those in which all major layers of abdominal wall including skin, subcutaneous tissue, and musculoaponeurosis, were incised by a scalpel, regardless of the techniques used on the abdominal peritoneum.

Data collection and analysis: 

We independently assessed studies for inclusion and risk of bias. One review author extracted data which were checked by a second review author. We calculated risk ratio (RR) and 95% confidence intervals (CI) for dichotomous data, and difference in means (MD) and 95% CI for continuous data. We examined heterogeneity between studies.

Main results: 

We included nine RCTs (1901 participants) which were mainly at unclear risk of bias due to poor reporting. There was no statistically significant difference in overall wound complication rates (RR 0.90, 95% CI 0.68 to 1.18), nor in rates of wound dehiscence (RR 1.04, 95% CI 0.36 to 2.98), however both these comparisons are underpowered and a treatment effect cannot be excluded. There is insufficient reliable evidence regarding the effects of electrosurgery compared with scalpel incisions on blood loss, pain, and incision time.