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What is Turbinate Surgery?

By D. Jeffress
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Turbinate surgery is a relatively quick and simple operation that helps to open up the nasal airways and relieve chronic congestion, pain, and inflammation in the nose. A surgeon can use either a scalpel or a cauterizing tool to remove sections of bone and cartilage, thereby creating wider passages for air. Patients who have chronic colds, severe allergies, congenital deformities, or other conditions that cause frequent breathing problems can meet with their doctors to learn about turbinate surgery in detail. The surgery has a very high success rate and there are few risks of complications.

Turbinates are small mucus- and cartilage-covered bones that protrude into the upper nasal passages. When inhaled air comes into contact with the turbinates, it is humidified and either warmed or cooled to body temperature to protect the respiratory tract. In addition, hairlike structures called cilia along the lining of the turbinates trap pathogens and bacteria, preventing them from reaching the lungs. Problems occur when the turbinates are constantly irritated and inflamed. They fill with blood and swell, blocking the passage of air. Turbinate surgery is considered only after nasal sprays and other medications prove ineffective at relieving breathing problems.

If a doctor decides that turbinate surgery is a good option, he or she can set up a consultation with a surgeon. The surgeon can review x-rays and findings from physical exams to determine the severity and exact location of the obstruction. On the day of the procedure, a patient is usually given a local anesthetic and placed in a reclining chair. A saline spray is given to break up mucus and give the surgeon better access through a nostril. Using a long camera tube called an endoscope, he or she can then study the affected turbinates in detail.

There are a few different varieties of turbinate surgery, but the most common procedure is called a submucous resection. With the aid of the endoscope, the surgeon makes a small incision along the mucus lining of the damaged turbinate. Part of the bone is broken into small pieces and removed with specialized surgical tools. After the bone is removed, the lining is usually sutured with a dissolving stitch.

Another option for surgery is cauterization. A high-intensity electric wire is guided to the turbinate and activated. The heat generated by the wire burns away cartilage and cilia while leaving the actual bone untouched. Cauterization is generally a highly effective method of opening up the airways, but most surgeons prefer submucous resection because it better preserves important cilia in the nose.

Following either type of turbinate surgery, a patient can expect to have pain and breathing troubles at least one week. Soothing nasal sprays and decongestants are usually prescribed to help with symptoms. In most cases, patients make full recoveries in about two weeks. Follow-up doctor visits are important to confirm the success of the procedure and address any lingering issues.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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