You may have been advised that you may have a surgical drain in place after a procedure, or that you will need to have a drain in place to help treat an accumulation of fluids or to treat an infection, such as an abscess. Getting a drain can sound frightening or overwhelming, but the system may speed up healing and help avoid complications. After surgery, drainage can also reduce pain.
A surgical drain is used to prevent fluid or infectious substances from building up at the site of the surgery. The drain does just what it sounds like: it pumps fluids away and out of the body, much like a plumbing drain. A drain can be mounted during surgery or as an outpatient procedure. Outside of surgery, drains are often mounted in interventional radiology, and the drain doctor uses an X-ray machine or some form of the scan to ensure that the drain is in the right position.
Types of Surgical Drains
There are several types of drains, ranging from chest tubes that prevent fluids from collecting around the heart following an open-heart surgery to small bulb-like drains that apply gentle suction. The type of drain used depends on the type of operation, the choice of the surgeon, and the position of the operation. There may be one or more drains, depending on the nature of the issue.
Discomfort or Pain
In most cases, drains are not uncomfortable to have in place, but they can cause discomfort depending on the size and location. Usually, the pain is mild but the wider the drain, the more likely it is to cause pain. Many people complain that the chest tubes are more painful than the chest incision following heart bypass surgery.
Caring for a Surgical Drain
If you’re sent home with a drain, be sure to cover it, make sure it doesn’t dangle freely or in such a way that it can be inadvertently removed. Some drains can be unintentionally disconnected because they are too large to pull, such as the collection system used to carry the drainage. Some people use bandage tape that can be bought from a drug store to hold the drain near their incision to avoid it from being unintentionally removed. If you do this, be careful not to inadvertently remove the drain while removing the tape. Caring for the drain is very much like performing good incision care. Wash your hands before touching your incision or the drain. Gently clean the area around the drain in the tub with mild soap and rinse thoroughly. Stop swimming in a bathtub because you have an incision that has not been fully healed or a drain in place unless your surgeon says it’s safe to do so. Take the time to check the region around the drain for signs of infection, just like you would have a typical surgical incision.
Removing a Surgical Drain
Drains are designed to be removed without the need for extra surgery or procedures. They may exit the body through a surgical incision, or a small incision may be made specifically for drainage. The drain may have sutures to prevent it from being inadvertently dislodged. If drainage is no longer necessary or the drain is no longer needed, it can be removed by cutting the sutures and gently pulling out the drain. This operation can be performed by a physician or nurse, depending on the type of drain in use and the reasons for the drainage. If any resistance is felt when extracting the drain, the operation will be halted before it can be done safely.
Generally speaking, a drain can be removed when there are less than 30 cubic centimeters (1 ounce) of fluid for two straight days or three weeks after surgery, whichever comes first. Getting a drain removed usually does not hurt, but it can feel very strange as the tubing slides out of the body. The incision is either sealed by a dressing or left exposed to the air. There is typically no need for stitches, but you can stop swimming or soaking in a bathtub for two days. In certain cases, the drain will come from the surgical incision itself, which will begin to heal and close after the drain is removed.