Skip to main content

What Is a Retained Surgical Item?

Life care planning

New York City, NY – Top attorney, handles medical malpractice, doctors errors, wrongful death, airline injuries & death, MTA, bus accidents, and construction cases. Attorney Jonathan C. Reiter consistently delivers results.

Americans undergo around 28 million surgeries every year. When a person undergoes surgery, doctors and nurses often need to use a variety of surgical instruments, sponges, clamps, pads, tubes, and other items. When a health care professional accidentally leaves one of these items inside the patient and closes the surgical incision, the object is known as a “retained surgical item.” According to one report, there are roughly 1,500 retained surgical item cases every year in the United States. The report goes on to state that the forgotten items are fabric nearly 70 percent of the time and metal in the 30 percent of remaining cases. In some cases, metallic surgical instruments break during the procedure, and a fragment of metal gets left behind in the patient that is not noticed by the surgical team.

Retained surgical items can put a patient at serious risk. Patients can develop a range of health problems, and some people have died after a doctor left behind a surgical item during surgery.

The Association of Perioperative Nurses states, “Foreign bodies that are unintentionally left in patients after surgery can cause harm to surgical patients. Proactive risk strategies are required to prevent and reduce the occurrence of unintended retained surgical items (RSI) events for every patient undergoing an operative or other invasive procedure.”

Why Do Surgical Items Get Left Behind?

When a patient discovers that he or she has been the victim of a retained surgical item, one of their first thoughts is often to wonder how a doctor or hospital could have made such a monumental surgical mistake.

If you watch medical or hospital shows, you may have noticed the surgical team counting items as they use them. This method is standard practice in operating rooms, and the idea is that by counting items as they are used and then recounting at the end of the surgery, the surgical team can account for all the tools, sponges and other items used during the procedure.

However, a report points out that 88 percent of retained surgical item cases involve a correct count. In other words, even though a correct count is documented in the records, a foreign object was unintentionally left in the patient.

Symptoms of a Retained Surgical Item

The signs of a retained surgical item can vary widely, so it’s important for patients to see a doctor right away if they feel unusual or odd after a surgery. Some of the most common symptoms of a retained surgical item include:

  • Excessive or prolonged pain
  • Signs of infection of the surgical wound site, such as redness, swelling or drainage
  • Fever, rapid heart rate, respiratory distress or other signs of systemic infection
  • Headaches and mental status changes
  • Constipation or trouble urinating
  • Abdominal bulging or distention
  • A wound that won’t heal
  • Rapid weight loss
  • Enlarged lymph nodes

Because a retained surgical item can cause infection, it’s very important for patients to be watchful for signs and symptoms of local or generalized infection, which can include pain and a high fever.

In other cases, a patient may experience unexplained, unusual or prolonged pain following surgery. A patient may feel that something isn’t right but can’t get satisfactory answers from the doctor. When these instances occur, it’s important to listen to your gut and follow your instincts. Doctors and nurses are human, and they make mistakes. While not every pain following a surgery turns out to be a retained surgical item, it’s best to rule it out before moving on to other possible explanations.  

Your Rights If You’re a Victim of a Retained Surgical Item

One of the most frustrating and frightening realities about retained surgical item cases is that patients typically go for long periods of time before a doctor ever realizes a mistake has occurred. Because most surgeries require a recovery period, doctors may be quick to brush off a patient’s complaints as normal everyday symptoms of recovery.

In other cases, an x-ray or MRI may reveal an item that has been left behind. Some types of pads used in surgery have tapes that are intentionally radiopaque, meaning they are meant to show up clearly on x-rays. However, there have been cases in which a retained surgical item doesn’t reveal itself on initial x-rays or scans. In these cases, the retained item is made from a material that won’t show up when scanned, or an organ or another body part obscures the item from being seen.

If you believe you have been the victim of a doctor’s mistake or have been diagnosed as having a retained surgical item, you may be able to file a medical malpractice claim. Victims of retained surgical items often have substantial damages, including pain, suffering and additional surgery to retrieve the retained item as well as to deal with any additional medical complications that have occurred. Typically, patients incur additional medical bills, lost wages, and other economic damages due to treatment and surgery for retained surgical objects. Depending on the facts of your case, you may be entitled to compensation for these damages and losses.

Once the patient discovers that they have been the victim of medical malpractice involving a retained surgical object, there is a limited time to file a lawsuit. That is why it’s important to act quickly if you discover that your doctor or hospital left an item behind in your body during your surgery. It’s best to speak to a medical malpractice lawyer about your options.

Media Contact:

NYC Medical Malpractice Lawyer Jonathan C. Reiter. T: 212-736-0979




Prior results cannot and do not guarantee or predict a similar outcome with respect to any future case. Recoveries always depend upon the facts and circumstances of each case, the injuries suffered, damages incurred, and the responsibility of those involved

Jonathan C. Reiter NYC Injury Lawyer

New York City Personal Injury Lawyer / Aviation Accident Attorney