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Surgical Technique

Laparoscopic challenges: The large uterus

Total laparoscopic hysterectomy is possible when the uterus is larger than 14 weeks’ gestational size—if you incorporate several novel techniques and use the right instruments

October 2008 · Vol. 20, No. 10


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The authors report no financial relationships relevant to this article.

CASE: Large fibroid uterus. Is laparoscopy feasible?

A 41-year-old woman known to have uterine fibroids consults you after two other gynecologists have recommended abdominal hysterectomy. She weighs 320 lb, stands 5 ft 2 in, and is nulliparous and sexually inactive. Pelvic ultrasonography reveals multiple fibroids approximating 18 weeks’ gestational size. Although she has hypertension and reactive airway disease, these conditions are well controlled by medication. Her Pap smear and endometrial biopsy are negative.

Because her professional commitments limit her time for recovery, she hopes to bypass abdominal hysterectomy in favor of the laparoscopic approach.

Is this desire realistic?

Twenty years have passed since Reich performed the first total laparoscopic hysterectomy,1 but only a small percentage of hysterectomies performed in the United States utilize that approach. In 2003, 12% of 602,457 hysterectomies were done laparoscopically; the rest were performed using the abdominal or vaginal approach (66% and 22%, respectively).2

Yet laparoscopic hysterectomy has much to recommend it. Compared with abdominal hysterectomy, it involves a shorter hospital stay, less blood loss, a speedier return to normal activities, and fewer wound infections.3 Unlike vaginal hysterectomy, it also facilitates intra-abdominal inspection.

Although the opening case represents potentially difficult surgery because of the size of the uterus, the laparoscopic approach is feasible. When the uterus weighs more than 450 g, contains fibroids larger than 6 cm, or exceeds 12 to 14 cm in size,4-7 there is an increased risk of visceral injury, bleeding necessitating transfusion, prolonged operative time, and conversion to laparotomy. This article describes techniques that simplify laparoscopic management when the uterus exceeds 14 weeks’ size. By incorporating these techniques, we have performed laparoscopic hysterectomy in uteri as large as 22 to 24 weeks’ size without increased complications.

In Part 2 of this article, we address techniques that simplify laparoscopy when extensive intra-abdominal adhesions are present.

Why do some surgeons avoid laparoscopy?

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Major complications occur in approximately 5% to 6% of women who undergo total laparoscopic hysterectomy.8,9 That is one of the reasons many surgeons who perform laparoscopic procedures revert to the more traditional vaginal or abdominal approach when faced with a potentially difficult hysterectomy. These surgeons cite uteri larger than 14 weeks’ size, extensive intra-abdominal adhesions, and morbid obesity as common indications for a more conservative approach. Others cite the limitations of working with inexperienced surgeons or residents, inadequate laparoscopic instruments, and distorted pelvic anatomy. Still others avoid laparoscopy when the patient has medical problems that preclude use of pneumoperitoneum or a steep Trendelenburg position.

In some cases, laparoscopic hysterectomy is simply not practical. In others, however, such as the presence of a large uterus, it can be achieved with attention to detail, a few key techniques, and proper counseling of the patient.

Success begins preop

All surgical decisions begin with the patient. A comprehensive preoperative discussion of pertinent management options allows both patient and surgeon to proceed with confidence. Easing the patient’s preoperative anxiety is important. It can be achieved by explaining what to expect—not only the normal recovery for laparoscopic hysterectomy, but also the expected recovery if it becomes necessary to convert to laparotomy. If the patient has clear expectations, unexpected outcomes such as conversion are better tolerated. When it comes down to a choice between the surgeon’s ego or patient safety, the patient always wins. Conversion is not failure.

Another important topic to discuss with the patient is the risk of bowel injury. Mechanical bowel preparation is not essential for every patient who undergoes laparoscopic hysterectomy, but the risk of injury to the bowel necessitating colorectal surgical assistance may be heightened in women who have a large uterus or extensive intra-abdominal adhesions. Because of this risk, mechanical bowel preparation with oral polyethylene glycol solution or sodium phosphate should be considered. Most patients prefer the latter.10

What data show about bowel preps

The literature provides conflicting messages about the effectiveness of mechanical bowel preparation in averting additional complications when bowel injury occurs. Nichols and colleagues surveyed 808 active board-certified colorectal surgeons in the United States and Canada in 1995.11 All of the 471 (58%) surgeons who responded reported using some form of mechanical bowel preparation for their elective and emergency colorectal procedures.

Zmora and associates described the difficulty of designing a multicenter study to evaluate the role of mechanical bowel preparation in patient outcome.10 Of the many variables that warrant consideration, surgical technique was the single most important factor influencing surgical outcome.

In a review of evidence supporting the need for prophylactic mechanical bowel preparation prior to elective colorectal surgery, Guenaga and colleagues concluded that this practice is unsupported by the data. 12

Bottom line. Given these data, the gynecologist wanting to practice evidence-based medicine should base his or her recommendations about bowel preparation on the preferences of the general or colorectal surgeon who will be called if a bowel injury occurs.

Don’t forget the team

After preparing the patient, prepare your support team—the operating room (OR) and anesthesia staffs. The OR staff should ensure that extra sutures, instruments, and retractors are unopened, in the room, and available in case conversion is necessary. Inform the anesthesia staff of your anticipated surgical time and potential pitfalls. Let them know you will need maximum Trendelenburg position for pelvic exposure, but remain flexible if the patient has trouble with oxygenation and ventilation. Making your anesthesiologist aware of your willingness to work together will benefit both you and your patient immensely.

Preparation continues in the OR

Appropriate patient positioning is key to successful completion of difficult laparoscopic cases. Position the patient’s buttocks several inches beyond the table break to facilitate maximal uterine manipulation, which may be needed for completion of the colpotomy.

Place the patient in the dorsal lithotomy position using Allen stirrups, with the knees flexed at a 90° angle. Keep the knees level with the hips and the hips extended neutrally.

Arm position is important to maximize room for the surgeon alongside the OR table. Space is limited when the patient’s arms are positioned on arm boards. Tucking the arms at the patient’s sides, with the antecubital fossa anterior and the palm cupping the hip, improves the surgical field and secures the patient to the OR table (FIGURE 1). Protect the elbows and hands with cushions.

Place sequential compression devices (on the calf or foot) for the duration of the procedure to minimize the risk of blood stasis and clots that sometimes develop in the legs with prolonged surgical times. Many complex laparoscopic cases last longer than 2 hours.

FIGURE 1 Positioning the patient

Tuck the arms at the patient’s sides, with the antecubital fossa anterior and the palm cupping the hip, to improve the surgical field.

Maximum Trendelenburg position is a must

This positioning is essential for successful anatomic exposure in complex laparoscopic surgical cases. If the patient is positioned securely, maximum Trendelenburg position does not increase the risk of the patient sliding off the OR table, nor does it affect oxygenation in most morbidly obese patients. Rather, it allows the intestines to drop out of the pelvis into the upper abdomen, facilitating visualization and decreasing the risk of bowel injury.

Anesthesia staffers often limit the degree of Trendelenburg position unless the surgeon insists otherwise. Alternating patient position between maximum Trendelenburg for optimal surgical exposure and a less steep angle when patient oxygenation requires it allows the gynecologic surgeon and anesthesiologist to work together in the patient’s best interest.

Video monitor placement is key

It helps determine how efficiently you operate. Use of a single central monitor requires both the surgeon and assistant to turn their heads acutely during prolonged procedures, accelerating their fatigue and potentially increasing the risk of injury. Using two monitors—each placed to allow the surgeon and assistant to maintain neutral head position—minimizes fatigue and its attendant risks.

Entering the abdomen

Abdominal entry poses theoretical obstacles when the patient has a large uterus, but all types of entry remain safe as long as laparoscopic surgical principles are followed scrupulously. We have successfully used traditional Veress needle entry, open laparoscopic entry, and left upper quadrant entry.

Is entry above the umbilicus helpful?

Anecdotal reports suggest a midline port above the umbilicus when the uterus extends above the umbilicus, but we do not alter standard port placement in these cases. By tenting the abdominal wall at the umbilicus, we create adequate distance to achieve pneumoperitoneum and space for directed trocar entry to avoid injury to the uterus. The conventional umbilical primary port allows use of standard-length instruments. The cephalad uterine blood supply (infundibulopelvic ligament vessels or utero-ovarian ligament vessels) remains at or below the level of the umbilicus in almost all of these patients.

Placement of ports

Port placement in the patient who has a large uterus is the same as it is for other laparoscopic hysterectomies in our practice. We use an 11-mm trocar at the umbilicus for a 10-mm endoscope. We use the 10-mm endoscope because the light it provides to the surgical field is superior to that of a 5-mm endoscope, and the 10-mm scope is more durable.

We place a 5-mm trocar just above the anterior iliac crest on each side, lateral to the ascending inferior epigastric vessels (FIGURE 2). We place an 11-mm trocar 10 cm medial and cephalad to the lower iliac crest port on the side of the primary surgeon. This trocar serves a dual purpose: It is the primary port for the surgeon, and removal of the trocar sleeve later in the procedure allows for easy insertion of the morcellator.

Some patients will require a fifth port on the side opposite the primary surgeon to allow better access to the uterine blood supply or to facilitate uterine manipulation.

FIGURE 2 Port placement when the uterus is large

A midline umbilical port (A) is possible even when the uterus is large. Other ports include a 5-mm trocar just above the anterior iliac crest on each side (B), and an 11-mm trocar 10 cm medial and cephalad to the lower iliac crest port nearest the primary surgeon (C).

Why an angled scope is superior

Many gynecologists fear laparoscopic surgery in patients who have a large uterus. The reason? Poor visualization of the surgical field. However, the type of endoscope that is used has a bearing on visualization.

Most gynecologists are trained to use a 0° endoscope for laparoscopic surgery. However, when the uterus is large, the 0° scope yields an inadequate field of view, whether the endoscope is placed at the umbilicus or through a lateral port. Critical structures like the vascular bundles, ureters, and even the bladder may be inadequately visualized using the 0° endoscope (FIGURE 3).

Gynecologists routinely use angled scopes in hysteroscopy and cystoscopy, but tend to avoid them in laparoscopy because of difficulty orienting the surgical field. As gynecologists, we readily accept that use of an angled scope in hysteroscopy and cystoscopy requires rotation of the scope while the camera maintains its horizontal position. The same concept applies to laparoscopy.

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Vaginal hysterectomy 
with basic instrumentation