What Is Electrocautery Used for?

Reviewed on 10/22/2020

Electrocautery is a procedure in which an electric current is passed through a resistant metal wire
Electrocautery is a procedure in which an electric current is passed through a resistant metal wire

Electrocautery is a procedure in which an electric current is passed through a resistant metal wire (probe), and the heat produced in the process is used in various medical procedures. The heat from electrocautery can be applied to living tissues to burn away any abnormal tissue or seal the blood loss (achieve hemostasis).

Electrocautery is used for several purposes, which include:

Electrocautery at low temperatures can be used for superficial tissue destruction in the treatment of superficial and relatively avascular (devoid of blood supply) masses. Such lesions include:

  • Seborrheic keratoses (a type of noncancerous skin growth)
  • Acrochordons (skin tags)
  • Molluscum (a type of viral infections causing raised, flesh-colored bumps on the skin)
  • Verrucae (a contagious and often painful wart)
  • Syringomas (noncancerous tumors typically found on the eyelids and cheeks)
  • Small angiomas (a type of abnormal growth formed by blood vessels)

Higher temperature electrocautery is used for the removal of thicker skin lesions, such as:

Other indications include:

What is electrocautery?

Electrocautery or thermal cautery is a procedure that uses heat from an electric current (direct or alternating current) to destroy abnormal cell mass, such as a tumor or other lesion. It is often used to achieve hemostasis (control bleeding during surgery) or after an injury. The electrode is placed on or near the tissue to be treated and the heat generated from the tip of the electrode can be used to burn or destroy the target tissue.

Electrocautery is a safe procedure. It does not involve passing the current through the patient. Hence, it can be safely used in patients with implanted electrical devices, such as cardiac pacemakers, implantable cardioverter-defibrillators, and deep-brain stimulators.

Electrocautery is not synonymous with electrosurgery because electrosurgery involves the passage of high frequency alternating electrical current through the patient’s body to achieve varying degrees of tissue destruction. 

What are the complications of electrocautery?

Like every procedure, the electrocautery bears some risks to the patient and the operating doctor. These include:

  • Burns: Electrocautery bears the risk of fire or explosion if flammable materials, such as alcohol, oxygen, and bowel gases, are near the treatment site.
  • Spread of infections: Infection can spread via the treatment electrode, surgical smoke, and aerosolized blood microdroplets. There are reports of Staphylococcus (bacteria), Hepatitis B virus, and human papillomavirus spreading due to electrocautery. During electrocautery, aerosolized blood droplets can be propelled up to 30 cm and can be infectious if inhaled. Surgical smoke generated during the procedure can spread viruses and bacteria. The smoke also carries hazardous chemicals and cancer-causing substances (carcinogens). The risk of infection can be lowered by using a smoke-evacuation system, along with facial masks, protective eyewear, and surgical gloves. Disposable or sterilized electrodes also help to prevent the spread of infections


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