Everything You Need to Know About Surgical Drains

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For many patients preparing to undergo a plastic surgery procedure, there’s one element to their recovery that may come as a surprise to them: the use of a surgical drain.


A surgical drain is a long tube that is inserted into the body at the site of a surgical incision that runs along the incision and drains out of the body into a bulb that may resemble a lemon or a grenade. As your body begins to accumulate excess fluids as part of the healing process, the fluids drip into the drain line, and down to the end grenade-like piece. Though there are many types of surgical drains, for plastic surgery, most doctors use what is known as a Jackson-Pratt drain.

A Jackson-Pratt Drain uses a negative pressure device to suction out the excess fluid. Once the collection bulb becomes full of fluid, the Jackson-Pratt drain has a valve (like the type of valve used on inflatable beach balls or tubes) that can be opened and the fluid emptied into a cup.

When emptying your surgical drain, it is important that you hold the drain line firmly at the incision and squeeze the line towards the bulb, emptying as much of the fluid still in the line as possible. When you have cleared as much of the drain line as you can, you must then empty the fluid into the cup provided by your surgeon.

The fluids that come out of your surgical drain are usually a mixture of water, blood and sometimes puss. Following the first few days of your surgery, the fluid in your drain may be bright or dark red, but as your body begins to heal, the fluid should become lighter in color and lower in volume.

Most surgeons will provide patients or their caregivers with a drain log. This is a helpful way for you and your doctor to keep track of how frequently you are emptying your surgical drain, but also how much fluid is draining out of your incision each time.  Most surgeons will require you to keep your drain in place until it is no longer producing fluid.

Drain lines are usually attached to your body by running the entire length of your incision and then stitched into place at the very end of the incision, so they do not fall out. When your doctor feels your incision is healed enough to remove the drain completely, he will remove it in his office and may stitch or use surgical tape to close the small opening where the drain line exits your body. Though it sounds scary, most patients are surprised at how easily the drain comes out, and how little its removal hurts.

How long your drain stays in place varies by patient. Though you are encouraged to get up and move following your surgery, the more you exert yourself, the more fluid you are likely to produce. That is why you should pace yourself and try not to overdo it following your procedure. Speak to your surgeon about what kind of activities and how much activity is recommended following your procedure.

While we know that nobody wants to wear, empty and record their drain contents, it is a vital part of healing for some plastic surgery procedures. Don’t think that just because you don’t want to empty your drain or it’s too gross or messy that you can just skip monitoring the drain altogether. To do so can increase your risk of a serious condition called a seroma, where fluid accumulates along the incision line and cause the incision to rupture or become infected. If you develop a seroma and it does not heal on its own, additional surgery may be required, and a more permanent drain may need to be placed to help drain the fluid and correct the damage left behind by the seroma.

Yes, surgical drains are no fun, but it's better to make the best of them for the one to two weeks they’re required than to deal with the potential months of recovering from a seroma.

If you have any questions about surgical drains, seromas, or any other element of your surgical procedure or recovery, give Dr. Mitchell’s office a call at 702-376-3095.

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