Objects Most Commonly Left Inside the Body After Surgery

Retained Surgical Instrument

 Getty Images / Peter Dazeley

When undergoing surgery, most patients don't consider that they could leave the hospital with foreign objects in their bodies. Research studies indicate that thousands of incidents (4,500 to 6,000) of this type happen each year in the United States alone. Retained surgical instruments after surgery can cause a number of serious health issues and may even lead to death. Leaving foreign objects in a patient's body is a mistake that could be avoided with the implementation of extra safety precautions.

15 Objects Commonly Left Inside the Body After Surgery

Depending on the type of surgery, surgeons are estimated to use over 250 types of surgical instruments and tools during a single procedure. These objects are difficult to keep track of during surgery and are sometimes left behind. The types of surgical objects commonly left inside a patient after surgery include:

  • sponges
  • scalpels
  • scissors
  • towels
  • drain tips
  • needles
  • guide wires
  • clamps
  • tweezers
  • forceps
  • scopes
  • surgical masks
  • measuring devices
  • surgical gloves
  • tubes

The most common objects left inside a patient are needles and sponges. Sponges, in particular, are difficult to keep track of as they are used to soak up blood during surgery and tend to blend in with the patient's organs and tissues. These incidences happen most often during abdominal surgery. The most common areas in which surgical objects are left inside a patient are the abdomen, vagina, and the chest cavity.

Why Objects Get Left Behind

Surgical objects are unintentionally left inside a patient for a number of reasons. Hospitals typically rely on nurses or technicians to keep track of the number of sponges and other surgical tools used during surgery. Human error comes into play as incorrect counts can be made due to fatigue or chaos as a result of a surgical emergency. Several factors can increase the risk that an object may be left behind after surgery. These factors include unexpected changes that occur during surgery, the patient's body mass index is high, multiple procedures are needed, procedures involving more than one surgical team, and procedures involving greater blood loss.

Consequences of Leaving Objects Behind

The consequences of having surgical tools left inside a patient's body vary from harmless to fatal. Patients may go for months or years not realizing that they have foreign surgical objects within their bodies. Sponges and other surgical implements can lead to infection, severe pain, digestive system problems, fever, swelling, internal bleeding, damage to internal organs, obstructions, loss of part of an internal organ, prolonged hospital stays, additional surgery to remove the object or even death.

Cases of Objects Left Inside Patients

Examples of surgical objects being left inside patients include:

  • A patient in a Wisconsin hospital was undergoing cancer surgery and a 13-inch surgical retractor was left inside his abdomen.
  • A six-inch metal surgical clamp was left in a man's abdomen (behind his liver) following intestinal surgery in California. Even more astonishing is that this was the second time that a clamp was left inside this same patient after surgery.
  • Surgical scissors were left inside a woman who had undergone uterine cancer surgery.
  • A surgical glove was left inside a woman who had undergone a hysterectomy.
  • A two-inch scalpel was left inside the abdomen of a man who was having heart bypass surgery.

Prevention Methods

Large surgical instruments are not commonly left inside patients. Retained surgical sponges make up the vast majority of objects left behind after surgery. Some hospitals are using sponge-tracking technology to ensure that these items are detected and not left inside a patient. The sponges are bar-coded and scanned when they are used to reduce the risk of an inaccurate count. They are scanned again after surgery to ensure that there are no discrepancies. Another type of sponge-tracking technology involves radio-frequency tagged sponges and towels. These items can be detected by an x-ray while the patient is still in the operating room. Hospitals that use these types of surgical object tracking methods have reported a drastic reduction in the rate of reported retained surgical objects. Adopting sponge-tracking technology has also proven to be more cost-effective for hospitals than having to perform additional surgeries on patients to remove retained surgical objects.


  • Eisler, Peter. “What Surgeons Leave behind Costs Some Patients Dearly.” USA Today. Gannett, 08 Mar. 2013. Web. 6 July 2016. http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2013/03/08/surgery-sponges-lost-supplies-patients-fatal-risk/1969603/.
  • Williams, T. Tung, D. et al. "Retained Surgical Sponges: Findings from Incident Reports and a Cost-Benefit Analysis of Radiofrequency Technology". J Am Coll Surg. 2014 Sep;219(3):354-64. doi: 10.1016/j.jamcollsurg.2014.03.052. Epub 2014 May 10.
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Bailey, Regina. "Objects Most Commonly Left Inside the Body After Surgery." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/objects-left-inside-body-after-surgery-4061352. Bailey, Regina. (2021, February 16). Objects Most Commonly Left Inside the Body After Surgery. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/objects-left-inside-body-after-surgery-4061352 Bailey, Regina. "Objects Most Commonly Left Inside the Body After Surgery." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/objects-left-inside-body-after-surgery-4061352 (accessed July 25, 2021).