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Surgical Technique

Catastrophic intraoperative hemorrhage: 5-step action plan

If this emergency cannot be averted with careful preoperative assessment, rely on a reasoned plan, basic tools, a few new tools, and tried-and-true techniques.

June 2005 · Vol. 17, No. 6



Placenta accreta leads to hemorrhage

Sally is a 27-year-old gravida with 1 prior cesarean whose ultrasound imaging is suspicious for “placenta adherent to the bladder.” At 38 weeks, she delivers a viable infant by classical cesarean, at which time the ultrasound finding is confirmed: the placenta is densely adherent.

The placenta is left in situ, no methotrexate is given, and Sally is followed with clotting studies and exams.

Eight weeks later, when her fibrinogen level falls and the prothrombin time and partial thromboplastin time become abnormal, the obstetrician attempts to perform dilatation and evacuation, but massive bleeding ensues. The physician then performs a total abdominal hysterectomy, but bleeding continues from the cuff.

What is the best way to manage the hemorrhage?

After identifying its source, the surgeon should apply pressure to abate the bleeding, using packing if necessary, and repair the affected artery or vein. Fortunately, we have many tools at our disposal, from preventive steps like careful preoperative assessment to the use of hemostatic agents, fibrin glues, hypogastric artery ligation, and specialized pelvic packing techniques. With prompt action and a stepwise approach, this bona fide catastrophe can usually be successfully managed. This article details a 5-step action plan.

If massive bleeding occurs during laparoscopic or vaginal surgery, a laparotomy may be indicated, and intraoperative management would follow the same 5 steps.

STEP 1Like the Boy Scouts, Be Prepared

Although surgeons are acutely aware that drugs such as warfarin and heparin can cause intraoperative bleeding, the patient history and predisposing factors sometimes get short shrift.

Besides asking about the patient’s medications, assess the following:

  • Platelets. The primary laboratory test to evaluate potential bleeding is the platelet count. In general, 10,000 to 20,000 platelets are needed for hemostasis. However, 50,000 are needed for any surgery or invasive procedure, such as insertion of a central line.1 I recommend platelet evaluation for patients scheduled for major abdominal surgery.
  • History of bleeding. If the patient or her family has a history of bleeding with any surgery, evaluate her for von Willebrand’s disease.
  • High alcohol intake warrants preoperative liver function and coagulation studies.
  • Some herbal or natural remedies can exacerbate intraoperative hemorrhage through their inhibition of coagulation, especially the agents listed in TABLE 1. They should generally be discontinued 2 to 7 days before surgery.2
  • Aspirin and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs should be discontinued 7 days before anticipated surgery. However, patients may continue aspirin at a daily dose of 81 mg.
  • Poor nutrition and obesity predispose the patient to wound complications and intraoperative bleeding. Patients who are severely malnourished can take dietary supplements or receive total parenteral nutrition prior to surgery.
  • Intraoperative factors such as the 3 “inadequacies” (inadequate incision, retraction, and anesthesia), low core body temperature, severe adhesions (ie, endometriosis), and large vascular tumors also are sometimes associated with bleeding.

For patients predisposed to bleeding, obtaining exposure is mandatory. Blood components and a cell-saving device also should be available, as described below.


Alternative remedies that may exacerbate bleeding

  • 32% to 37% of Americans use these remedies, but only 38% of them tell their doctor
  • Stop all alternative remedies 2 to 7 days before surgery





Vitamin A precursor; often taken as a nutritional supplement

May cause coagulopathy


Used to prevent or treat migraine and ease menstrual cramps

May inhibit coagulation

Fish oil

Rich in omega-3 fatty acids, recommended for cardiovascular health

Omega-3s inhibit coagulation


Used to reduce hypertension and high cholesterol

Case reports of unexpected or increased surgical bleeding, prolonged bleeding time, and impaired platelet aggregation


Treatment of dementia, impaired cognition, and memory

Various ginkgolides have platelet-activating-factor antagonist properties; case reports of spontaneous bleeding


Widely used as a stimulant, tonic, diuretic, mood elevator, and energy booster

May cause hypertension, cardiovascular instability, coagulopathy, and sedation

St. John’s wort


May cause cardiovascular instability, coagulopathy, and sedation

Vitamin E


May interfere with coagulation

STEP 2Follow These Basic Principles

Whenever bleeding is encountered in any area of the abdominal cavity, the first step is simple: Apply immediate pressure with a finger or sponge stick. Then obtain exposure and assistance. Exposure usually means extending the incision and using a fixed table retractor.

If the source of bleeding is unknown, apply pressure on the aorta using a hand, weighted speculum, or Conn aortic compressor (Pilling-branded, Teleflex Medical, Limerick, Pa).

Secure individual vessels with finetipped clamps and small-caliber sutures or clips, and minimize the use of clamps. Never place clamps or sutures blindly, and never use electrocautery for large lacerations.

If you choose to use packs to temporarily control bleeding, insert them carefully to avoid tearing veins, and place pelvic packs (hot or cold) in a stepwise fashion, from sidewall to sidewall. Leave packs in place for at least 15 minutes and remove them sequentially.

Great vessel injuries

The aorta, vena cava, and common iliac vessels are sometimes injured during removal of paraaortic nodes or when the inferior mesenteric vessels are avulsed during retraction of the sigmoid colon. In addition, needle or trocar injuries during operative laparoscopy occur in as many as 4 of every 10,000 procedures.3

Again, the first step in managing great vessel injuries is applying pressure. Then obtain blood components, and, if necessary, consult with a vascular surgeon or gynecologic oncologist.

In general, once the patient is hemodynamically stable, the affected vessel should be compressed proximally and distally. Use Allis or vascular clamps on the torn edges to elevate the lacerated area. My preference is to close these injuries with a running 5-0 or 6-0 nylon or monofilament polypropylene (MFPP) suture on a cardiovascular needle.

Replacing blood and its components

Be aware of the following replacement guidelines for catastrophic intraoperative hemorrhage:

  • For every 8 U of red blood cells replaced, give 2 U of fresh frozen plasma.
  • If more than 10 U of red blood cells are replaced, give 10 U of platelets, preferably at the end of the procedure.
  • With prolonged PTT, give fresh frozen plasma.
  • If fibrinogen is low, give 2 U of cryoprecipitate.1

Primary volume expansion should be performed before replacing blood or blood components. One option when facing massive hemorrhage is to give cryoprecipitate initially.

When massive bleeding is anticipated or encountered, the Haemonetics Cell Saver (Haemonetics Corp, Braintree, Mass) is invaluable. This device, which requires a trained technician, removes blood from the operative field, anticoagulates it, and washes red blood cells, which are infused. It is accepted by many Jehovah’s Witnesses,4 and has been used safely in women with cesarean-associated bleeding.5 Relative contraindications include malignancy and bacterial contamination from a ruptured abscess or inadvertent injury to unprepared bowel. 6 The Cell Saver may be used after heavy bleeding from hysterectomy or in patients with ruptured membranes.

STEP 3Try A Topical Hemostatic Agent

If hemorrhage contiues after arterial bleeders are secured, consider a topical hemostatic agent (TABLE 2). All such agents require pressure to be applied for 3 to 5 minutes.

My preferences are Surgicel (Johnson & Johnson, New Brunswick, NJ) and Gelfoam (Pharmacia, Kalamazoo, Mich). In general, Avitene Ultrafoam collagen hemostat (Davol, subsidiary of C.R. Bard, Murray Hill, NJ) works poorly in the presence of thrombocytopenia and should be used with caution near the ureter.

Fibrin glue has been widely used as a hemostatic agent in microvascular, cardiovascular, and thoracic surgery.

To prepare fibrin glue at my institution, we use a double-barrel syringe to apply equal amounts of cryoprecipitate and thrombin at the same time. One fibrin sealant, Tisseal VH (Baxter Healthcare, Deerfield, Ill), comes with a Duploject applicator. After the agent is thoroughly applied (it is sprayed), pressure is applied for 3 to 5 minutes.

The same manufacturer also produces Coseal, which is used in vascular reconstruction to achieve additional hemostasis by mechanically sealing off areas of leakage, and Floseal, to help achieve hemostasis when ligatures or clips are impractical.


Topical intraperitoneal hemostatic agents




Avitene Ultrafoam

Absorbable collagen hemostat

Comes in powder; sprinkle on area

Fibrin glue

  • Coseal
  • Floseal
  • Tisseal

Equal amounts of cryoprecipitate and thrombin

Spray on affected area with double-barrel syringe or device supplied by Baxter Healthcare


Absorbable gelatin sponge

Cut in strips of appropriate size and apply to area


Oxidized regenerated cellulose

Cut in strips of appropriate size and apply to area

STEP 4Hypogastric Artery Ligation


Bleeding persists

Because of the hemorrhage, a gynecologic oncology consult is obtained and the hypogastric artery is ligated bilaterally, but bleeding continues. During further exploration, the left ureter is found to be ligated. Sally receives 65 U of packed red blood cells, platelets, and fresh frozen plasma. The Cell Saver also is used.

If pelvic oozing persists after application of a topical hemostatic agent, consider hypogastric artery ligation, which controls pelvic hemorrhage in as many as 50% of patients.7,8

STEP 5When All Else Fails: “Pack And Go”

If intraoperative bleeding persists despite hypogastric artery ligation and the other measures, the life-saving modality of choice is a pelvic pack left in place 2 to 3 days. I prefer a fast, simple method: “pack and go” or damage-control technique. 10-12

A 2- to 4-inch Kerlix gauze (Kendall Health Care Products, Mansfield, Mass) is tightly packed over a fibrin glue bed from side to side in the pelvis. Only the skin is closed using towel clips or a running suture. The patient is immediately transferred to intensive care, where acidosis, coagulopathy, and hypothermia are corrected. In 48 to 72 hours, the packs are gently removed with saline drip assistance. If hemostasis still has not been achieved, repacking is an option.

Special cases, special tools

Presacral venous bleeding

Two helpful methods to quell presacral venous bleeding are:

  • inserting stainless steel thumbtacks
  • indirect coagulation through a muscle fragment

The thumbtack method

The presacral veins are sometimes injured during presacral neurectomy, sacrocolpopexy, or posterior exenteration. This bleeding can be controlled by inserting stainless steel thumbtacks, with direct pressure from the surgeon’s hand, directly into the sacrum. 15-17 These work by compressing veins adjacent to the bone, and are left in place permanently. No complications have been reported.

Indirect coagulation

Another method of controlling presacral venous bleeding is indirect coagulation through a muscle fragment. This is done by harvesting a 2 x 1 cm piece of muscle from the rectus abdominus and pressing it against the bleeding veins. Then set a Bovie (Valley Lab, Boulder, Colo) at 40 W of pure cutting current and apply it to the muscle fragment for 1 to 2 minutes. This method has been successful in 12 of 12 reported cases.18,19

Other methods of controlling presacral venous bleeding include bipolar cautery, use of bone wax, and suturing in “sandwiches” of Avitene alternated with Gelfoam, but these strategies have met with limited success.

Pelvic hemorrhage

Arterial embolization

Angiographic insertion of Gelfoam pledgets or Silastic coils may effectively control pelvic hemorrhage in up to 90% of postpartum and postoperative patients.20,21 Hypogastric artery embolization can also be done intraoperatively.22

However, this technique should be used with caution, as it may require 1 to 2 hours to perform and is inappropriate for patients with hypovolemic shock. Complications are rare, but can occur in up to 6% to 7% of patients.21

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