ABDOMINAL HYSTERECTOMY OVERVIEW
Abdominal hysterectomy is a surgical procedure in which the uterus is removed through an incision in the lower abdomen (figure 1). One or both ovaries and fallopian tubes may also be removed during the procedure (figure 2).
A brief review of female reproductive anatomy may be of help in understanding hysterectomy.
The uterus is a hollow, pear-shaped muscular organ located in the lower abdomen and pelvis (figure 3). At the upper end of the uterus, the fallopian tubes open on each side. The outer end of each tube lays next to an ovary. The ovaries lay next to and slightly behind the uterus.
At its lower end, the uterus narrows and opens into the vagina. The lower end of the uterus is called the cervix.
REASONS FOR ABDOMINAL HYSTERECTOMY
A hysterectomy may be recommended for a number of conditions. For some of these conditions, there may be an alternative to hysterectomy, described below. (See 'Alternatives to hysterectomy' below.)
Abnormal uterine bleeding — Excessive uterine bleeding, called menorrhagia, can lead to anemia (low blood iron count), fatigue, and contribute to missed days at work or school. Menorrhagia is generally defined as bleeding that lasts longer than seven days or saturates more than one pad per hour for several hours. Abnormal uterine bleeding (or any uterine bleeding after menopause) can also be a sign of uterine cancer. All women with these symptoms should undergo evaluation.
Heavy or irregular bleeding are generally treated first with medication or other surgical alternatives to hysterectomy. (See "Patient information: Heavy or prolonged periods (menorrhagia) (Beyond the Basics)".) However, abnormal uterine bleeding that does not improve with conservative treatments may require hysterectomy.
Fibroids — Fibroids (also known as leiomyoma) are noncancerous growths of uterine muscle that occur in up to one-third of all women. Fibroids may become larger during pregnancy, and typically shrink after menopause. They may cause excessive bleeding and pelvic pain or pressure. (See "Patient information: Uterine fibroids (Beyond the Basics)".)
Pelvic organ prolapse — Pelvic organ prolapse occurs due to stretching and weakening of the pelvic muscles and ligaments. This allows the uterus to fall (or prolapse) into the vagina. Prolapse is more common in women who have been pregnant, had vaginal childbirth, and in those with certain genetic factors, lifestyle factors (repeated heavy lifting over the lifetime), or chronic constipation.
Cervical abnormalities — Hysterectomy is rarely needed for severe cervical precancer that does not resolve after other procedures (such as cone biopsy). (See "Patient information: Follow-up of low-grade abnormal Pap tests (Beyond the Basics)" and "Patient information: Follow-up of high-grade abnormal Pap tests (Beyond the Basics)".)
Endometrial hyperplasia — Endometrial hyperplasia is the term used to describe excessive growth of the endometrium (the tissue that lines the uterus). It can sometimes lead to endometrial cancer. Although endometrial hyperplasia can often be treated with medication, a hysterectomy is sometimes needed or preferred to medical therapy.
Cancer — Cancer of the uterus (endometrium), cervix, or ovaries may require hysterectomy. (See "Patient information: Cervical cancer treatment; early stage cancer (Beyond the Basics)" and "Patient information: Endometrial cancer treatment after surgery (Beyond the Basics)" and "Patient information: First-line medical treatment of epithelial ovarian cancer (Beyond the Basics)".)
Severe bleeding after childbirth — Hysterectomy may rarely be required in women who have uncontrollable bleeding after childbirth.
Chronic pelvic pain — Chronic pelvic pain can be due to the effects of endometriosis or scarring (adhesions) in the pelvis and between pelvic organs. However, pelvic pain can also be caused by other sources, including the gastrointestinal and urinary systems. (See "Patient information: Chronic pelvic pain in women (Beyond the Basics)".) It is important for a woman with pelvic pain to ask about the probability that her pain will improve after hysterectomy.
PRE-OPERATIVE PLANNING AND EVALUATION
Before surgery, there are two main decisions that need to be made about the procedure: whether the cervix should be removed and whether the ovaries and tubes should be removed. If the ovaries are removed, a woman may need to decide if she should take estrogen replacement therapy.
Supracervical/subtotal hysterectomy — A standard abdominal hysterectomy includes removal of the entire uterus and cervix. However, there are situations in which the entire uterus is not removed. A supracervical, subtotal, or partial hysterectomy refers to a procedure in which the cervix is left in place, while the top of the uterus is removed. Supracervical hysterectomy may be done if difficulties arise during surgery, making removal of the cervix complicated. Prior to planned supracervical hysterectomy, you should discuss the risks and benefits of leaving the cervix in place with your doctor.
Women who undergo supracervical hysterectomy must continue to have routine screening (Pap smear) for cervical cancer. Some women continue to have menstrual bleeding since the retained cervix is attached to a small remaining portion of the uterus.
There was initial concern that removing the cervix would interfere with sexual satisfaction. However, studies have demonstrated that sexual satisfaction does not appear to differ after hysterectomy between women with and without a cervix.
Removal of ovaries — The ovaries may be removed during hysterectomy, a procedure known as an oophorectomy. Oophorectomy is not always required; the decision depends upon several considerations.
Premenopausal women may decide to keep the ovaries to provide a continued, natural source of hormones, including estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone. These hormones are important in maintaining sexual interest and preventing hot flashes and loss of bone density loss. On the other hand, women who have menstrual cycle-related migraines, epilepsy, or severe premenstrual syndrome (PMS) may have an improvement in symptoms when hormone levels are reduced by removing the ovaries. Discuss the risks and preferences of removing the ovaries with your doctor before surgery.
Postmenopausal women are often advised to have their ovaries removed because of a small risk of developing ovarian cancer at some point during their lifetime. The benefits of removing or keeping ovaries should be discussed with a physician.
Estrogen therapy — Estrogen therapy (ET) may be recommended after surgery for women who have not reached menopause who had their ovaries removed. ET can help to prevent hot flashes, night sweats, and loss of bone density, which may occur when the ovaries are surgically removed. Women who plan to use ET should talk with their clinician about the risks and benefits, and about how long to use this treatment. (See "Patient information: Early menopause (primary ovarian insufficiency) (Beyond the Basics)".)
Women who have completed menopause generally do not require ET after hysterectomy. (See "Patient information: Postmenopausal hormone therapy (Beyond the Basics)".)
Pre-operative testing — Standard pre-operative testing may include a physical examination, EKG, chest x-ray, and blood testing, depending upon age and other medical conditions.
ABDOMINAL HYSTERECTOMY PROCEDURE
Abdominal hysterectomy is performed in a hospital setting, and generally requires approximately two hours in the operating room. Patients are given general or spinal anesthesia plus sedation so that they feel no pain. Heart rate, blood pressure, blood loss, and respiration are closely observed throughout the procedure. After surgery, patients are transferred to the recovery room (also known as the post-anesthesia care unit) so that they can be monitored while waking up. Most patients will then be transferred to a hospital room, where they will spend one to two nights.
ABDOMINAL HYSTERECTOMY COMPLICATIONS
A number of complications can occur as a result of hysterectomy. Fortunately, most can be easily managed and do not cause long-term problems.
Hemorrhage — Excessive bleeding (hemorrhage) occurs in a small number of cases and may require a return to the operating room to identify and stop the bleeding.
Infection — Low-grade fever is common after hysterectomy, is not always caused by infection, and usually resolves without treatment. However, a high or persistent fever may signal an infection. Serious infection occurs in less than ten percent of women, and can usually be treated with intravenous antibiotics. Much less commonly, patients require another surgical procedure.
Constipation — Constipation occurs in most women following hysterectomy, and can usually be controlled with a regimen of stool softeners, dietary fiber, and laxatives.
Urinary retention — Urinary retention, or the inability to pass urine, can occur after abdominal hysterectomy. It is more common in women who have vaginal hysterectomy. (See 'Alternatives to hysterectomy' below.) Urine can be drained using a catheter until retention resolves, usually within 24 to 48 hours.
Blood clots — Pelvic surgery increases the risk of developing blood clots in the large veins of the leg or lung. The risk is increased for approximately six weeks after surgery. Medications may be given to some women to prevent blood clots. In addition, women taking oral contraceptives or hormone replacement should ideally discontinue them prior to surgery since they can further increase the risk of blood clots. Women who are sexually active and premenopausal should use alternative methods of birth control (e.g. condoms) to prevent pregnancy before surgery. (See "Patient information: Deep vein thrombosis (DVT) (Beyond the Basics)".)
Damage to adjacent organs — The urinary bladder, ureters (small tubes leading from the kidneys to the bladder), and large and small intestines are located in the lower abdomen and pelvis and can be injured during hysterectomy. Injury occurs in less than one percent of all women undergoing hysterectomy, and can usually be detected and corrected at the time of surgery. If detected after surgery, another operation may be needed.
Early menopause — Women who have undergone hysterectomy may experience menopause earlier than the average age of menopause (age 51). This may be due to an interruption in blood flow to the ovaries as a result of removing the uterus.
RECOVERY AFTER ABDOMINAL HYSTERECTOMY
Fluids and food are generally offered soon after surgery. Intravenous (IV) fluids may be administered during the first day, particularly if there is nausea or vomiting. Pain medicine is given as needed, either intravenously, or by intramuscular (IM) injection, or as a pill. Patients are encouraged to resume their normal daily activities as soon as possible. Being active is particularly important since it helps to prevent complications, such as blood clots, pneumonia, and gas pains.
More information about recovery from hysterectomy is available separately. (See "Patient information: Care after gynecologic surgery (Beyond the Basics)".)
LIFE AFTER ABDOMINAL HYSTERECTOMY
Studies of women's response to hysterectomy show that most women are satisfied with their results (table 1). Most reported improvement in symptoms, such as pain and vaginal bleeding.
Sexual function and enjoyment, interest in sex, and pain with sex were improved for most women. However, this improvement may depend upon several factors, including the age of a woman at the time of surgery, the reason for surgery, and history of any prior difficulties with mood.
Younger women may grieve after hysterectomy due to their loss of fertility. A woman who has new feelings of sadness, anxiety, or depression after surgery should speak with her healthcare provider. These feelings may be treated by talking with a therapist, with antidepressant medication, or may resolve with time. (See "Patient information: Early menopause (primary ovarian insufficiency) (Beyond the Basics)".)
ALTERNATIVES TO HYSTERECTOMY
Women who wish to avoid or postpone hysterectomy may be able to use medications or less invasive surgical procedures. Medical and surgical alternatives to hysterectomy depend upon the underlying disorder. The decision as to which treatment is "best" should be based upon a woman's particular medical problem, all available treatment options, and the risks and benefits of each type of treatment.
Some alternatives to abdominal hysterectomy include the following:
- In some cases the uterus may be removed through the vagina, avoiding the need for an incision in the abdomen. This procedure is called a vaginal hysterectomy. (See "Patient information: Vaginal hysterectomy (Beyond the Basics)".) A vaginal approach may be used if the uterus is not too big, there is not too much scar tissue, and if the condition prompting the surgery is benign and limited to the uterus. Most women can return to normal activities sooner after a vaginal hysterectomy than after an abdominal hysterectomy.
- Uterine artery embolization and myomectomy may be used to treat symptomatic leiomyoma (fibroids). (See "Patient information: Uterine fibroids (Beyond the Basics)".)
- Pain clinics may be able to treat patients with severe and chronic pelvic pain without surgery. (See "Patient information: Chronic pelvic pain in women (Beyond the Basics)".)
- Endometrial ablation, in which a physician destroys or removes most of the endometrium using an instrument inserted through the vagina and cervix and into the uterus. (See "Patient information: Heavy or prolonged periods (menorrhagia) (Beyond the Basics)".)
- Medical therapy using hormonal medications, such GnRH analogs (for example, leuprolide) or progestins can help reduce the pain associated with endometriosis. (See "Patient information: Endometriosis (Beyond the Basics)".)
- Cone biopsy (eg, cold knife cone), cryosurgery, laser surgery, or loop electrocautery (eg, LEEP or LLETZ) are usually used to treat women with cervical dysplasia (an abnormal Pap smear). These procedures remove the abnormal part of the cervix rather than the entire cervix and uterus (see "Patient information: Cervical cancer screening (Beyond the Basics)").
WHERE TO GET MORE INFORMATION
Your healthcare provider is the best source of information for questions and concerns related to your medical problem.
This article will be updated as needed on our web site (www.uptodate.com/patients). Related topics for patients, as well as selected articles written for healthcare professionals, are also available. Some of the most relevant are listed below.
Patient level information — UpToDate offers two types of patient education materials.
The Basics — The Basics patient education pieces answer the four or five key questions a patient might have about a given condition. These articles are best for patients who want a general overview and who prefer short, easy-to-read materials.
Patient information: Hysterectomy (The Basics)
Patient information: Ovarian cancer (The Basics)
Patient information: Uterine cancer (The Basics)
Patient information: Endometriosis (The Basics)
Patient information: Postpartum hemorrhage (The Basics)
Patient information: Preserving fertility after cancer treatment in women (The Basics)
Patient information: Uterine adenomyosis (The Basics)
Beyond the Basics — Beyond the Basics patient education pieces are longer, more sophisticated, and more detailed. These articles are best for patients who want in-depth information and are comfortable with some medical jargon.
Patient information: Heavy or prolonged periods (menorrhagia) (Beyond the Basics)
Patient information: Uterine fibroids (Beyond the Basics)
Patient information: Follow-up of low-grade abnormal Pap tests (Beyond the Basics)
Patient information: Follow-up of high-grade abnormal Pap tests (Beyond the Basics)
Patient information: Cervical cancer treatment; early stage cancer (Beyond the Basics)
Patient information: Endometrial cancer treatment after surgery (Beyond the Basics)
Patient information: First-line medical treatment of epithelial ovarian cancer (Beyond the Basics)
Patient information: Chronic pelvic pain in women (Beyond the Basics)
Patient information: Early menopause (primary ovarian insufficiency) (Beyond the Basics)
Patient information: Postmenopausal hormone therapy (Beyond the Basics)
Patient information: Deep vein thrombosis (DVT) (Beyond the Basics)
Patient information: Care after gynecologic surgery (Beyond the Basics)
Patient information: Vaginal hysterectomy (Beyond the Basics)
Patient information: Endometriosis (Beyond the Basics)
Patient information: Cervical cancer screening (Beyond the Basics)
Professional level information — Professional level articles are designed to keep doctors and other health professionals up-to-date on the latest medical findings. These articles are thorough, long, and complex, and they contain multiple references to the research on which they are based. Professional level articles are best for people who are comfortable with a lot of medical terminology and who want to read the same materials their doctors are reading.
An overview of endometrial ablation
Dilation and curettage
Laparoscopic approach to hysterectomy
Prolapsed uterine leiomyoma (fibroid)
Overview of hysterectomy
Overview of hysteroscopy
The following organizations also provide reliable health information.