The Riskiest Medical Procedures

5 minute read

By Christopher Brown

While many medical procedures end with a mantle full of get-well-soon cards, it isn’t always the case. Surgery, however routine, is a dangerous business. Start a search today to learn about the riskiest medical procedures.

Knives, rubber gloves, face masks, blood … it’s not for the faint of heart. It’s important to note our intention isn’t to scare you away from your family doctor. Having said that, knowing everything helps make healthcare decisions easier.


Easily one of the most dangerous surgical procedures in the field, the craniectomy involves removing a section of the skull (using power tools) to reduce swelling or bleeding around the brain. In the case of a craniotomy, the portion of skull is removed and replaced after surgery has been completed, but a craniectomy is different.

With a craniectomy, the removed portion of the skull can go weeks, and even months before being fully replaced. Rendering the patient’s recovery period just as, if not more, dangerous than the procedure itself.

An individual recovering from a craniectomy is required to take extra care in protecting their skull. And even then, a full recovery may not be possible.

Bladder Cystectomy

A bladder cystectomy can be fairly invasive. The procedure is usually done to combat cancer of the bladder, a particularly vicious strain of the disease that occurs most often in seniors (75+).

Bladder cystectomy involves removing all or part of the patient’s bladder. This can be accomplished a number of different ways. The more invasive approach begins with a single large incision in the abdomen to access the bladder. Should the doctor opt for a less invasive approach, they’ll rely on a number of small incisions or a robotic machine for increased precision. Dangerous complications include blood clots, infections, damage to nearby organs, and more.

Coronary Revascularization

Just because it’s popular doesn’t mean it’s safe. Over half a million coronary revascularization surgeries are done in the U.S. each year, but the procedure is far from foolproof. In an attempt to restore the flow of blood to the heart, surgeons graft new blood vessels to surround the existing blockages.

There are a lot of moving parts to this procedure and as such, a whole lot can go wrong. The more traditional method requires the doctors to stop the patient’s heart, relying on a cardiopulmonary bypass to maintain the body’s circulation. Most options also require a six to eight-inch incision down the middle of the sternum.

Septal Myotomy

A septal myotomy is another open-heart procedure that relies on a heart-lung machine to keep the patient alive while their heart is stopped. Commonly used to combat hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, this surgery is long, arduous, and recovering from it requires a stopover in the hospital’s intensive care unit.

The procedure sets out to reduce the congealing of the heart muscles by removing some of the already thickened tissue. What’s more, the surgery can take anywhere between three and six hours to complete. That’s up to six hours with an open chest cavity and a machine keeping you alive!


An esophagectomy involves removing all or part of a patient’s esophagus. Often, the surgery requires the removal of the patient’s lymph nodes around the esophagus and the stomach. Though there are multiple variations to the esophagectomy surgery, the principle goal remains the same: to treat early-stage cancer of the esophagus before it has spread to the stomach and surrounding organs.

This surgery requires the area between the stomach and the healthy esophagus to be reconstructed. If not done properly, patients can experience leakage of fluid, bleeding, severe infection in the chest, and a narrowing of the connection between the stomach and the esophagus.


Next on our list of the riskiest surgical procedures in all of medicine: the pancreatectomy. This procedure involves the removal of all or part of the patient’s pancreas. Much like the previous entries on this list, several variations of the procedure exist, including the distal, segmental, and total pancreatectomy.

It’s commonly done to manage benign pancreatic tumours, pancreatic cancer, and pancreatitis. Due to a heightened risk of serious problems – including post-operative bleeding, delayed gastric emptying, and internal anastomotic leaking – a pancreatectomy can be very risky. Make sure you discus those risks with your doctor should this procedure be recommended to you.

Thoracic Aortic Dissection Repair

Once again we return to the heart. For this procedure, the MD sets out to repair an instance of aortic dissection. Aortic dissection is defined as a separation of the layers within the aortic wall. Unfortunately, aortic dissection is incredibly fatal since most cases never even make it to the emergency room. And, because there are no obvious symptoms, diagnosing aortic dissection is incredibly difficult.

A thoracic aortic dissection repair procedure can be accomplished via open-heart surgery endovascular surgery or, when targeting the part of the aorta that’s closest to the heart, valve-sparing surgery. Any heart-centric surgery is dangerous, and this one is no different. Especially when considering that the surgeon is tasked with removing the damaged section of the aorta and rebuilding the blood vessel. Even for the world’s greatest surgeon, that’s no small feat.

Spinal Osteomyelitis Surgery

Osteomyelitis can be described as an infection of the vertebral body in the spine. Elderly patients, intravenous drug users, and individuals whose immune systems are compromised are particularly susceptible to this horrific spinal infection. Non-surgical treatments for the infection include a combination of bracing, intravenous antibiotic therapy, and rest. But today, surgery is our main focus.

Spinal osteomyelitis surgery involves cleaning the infected area of the spine and inserting support to stabilize the vertebrae and discs. Surgeons may rely on bone grafts to help support the patient’s spine. Surgery risks can include complete or partial paralysis and even a spread of other serious infections.

Bariatric Surgeries/ Gastric Bypass

Bariatric surgery, often referred to as a gastric bypass, is a surgery designed to aid in a patient’s weight loss. The surgery changes the way in which your small intestine and stomach process the food that you eat. In simple-speak, a gastric bypass divides the stomach into two separate pouches. As a result, the patient will feel full while eating significantly less than they’re used to.

The danger in the surgery has much more to do with the particulars of the patient base than the complexity of the procedure. Typically, those who require a gastric bypass are morbidly overweight. Their organs are larger and fattier, their breathing is more strained, and they typically don’t respond as well to anesthesia. It’s these physical factors that dramatically impact a patient’s risk of surgical complications.

Surgical Ventricular Restoration

We bet you’re beginning to notice a trend. Yes, we’ve returned with yet another heart procedure to cap off our risk-list. Well, that’s because heart surgery is incredibly invasive and incredibly dangerous.

A surgical ventricular restoration procedure is designed to repair the heart following a heart attack. After a heart attack, a patient’s heart becomes enlarged. This surgery is designed to re-shape and repair the heart to restore it to its normal size.

Not unlike the other heart surgeries on our list, the patient is kept alive using a heart-lung machine while the surgeon uses a plastic model to reshape their heart. Again, incredibly dangerous, incredibly risky but also, in most cases, a life-saving endeavor.

Yes, a lot of these procedures are risky and yes, reading about them can be scary. But it’s important to remember that your doctor is a pro and, if you find yourself in need of a surgery on this list, rest assured. You are in very good hands.

Christopher Brown