Does Cauterizing A Wound Really Work?

shutterstock_19028284Cauterization.  Sealing your battle wound with a red hot instrument, in an attempt to keep from bleeding to death.  This time honored treatment of action hero’s everywhere, is both effective, and very dangerous.  While the practice will help seal your wound from blood-loss, called exsanguination, it will also leave you extremely susceptible to infection.  Before you play Rambo and choose to use this method, let’s talk about why it works, and why you should probably never try it.  Unless you find yourself bleeding to death in the middle of nowhere and no other method of stopping the blood loss is working.

Cauterization as a medicinal treatment, can trace back to Hippocrates in the 5th century BC.  These early healers used the method to stop bleeding and infection in everything from amputations, to the surgical removal of cancerous tumors.  While modern medicine now knows this treatment actually worsens a person’s risk of infection, it does stop bleeding by heating up the tissue and blood, causing it to coagulate or clot.  It does this through a process called protein denaturation.

When proteins in our skin and blood are exposed to extreme heat, they lose their original chemical structure, causing them to cease their normal cellular functions.  The result is numerous abnormal characteristics.  The two that help stop bleeding are; the proteins loss of solubility and the clustering together of what are known as hydrophobic proteins.  The clustering, called communal aggregation, causes the proteins to bind together tightly, not allowing blood to pass through.   This is why eggs harden when you cook them. shutterstock_76223725

In the movies, when the action hero cauterizes his battle wound, they never seem to let us know what happens afterward.  Namely infection.  Using heat to sterilize objects, killing the bacteria present, is very affective.  The problem with using this method on live human tissue, is the second and third degree burns.  These burns leave a perfect environment for other outside bacteria to grow and propagate.  Numerous studies have shown you are much more likely to get an infection from cauterization, than the treatment would have prevented in the first place.

If you’re not willing to leave behind this medieval approach to medicine, declaring yourself a man in a way only conquering knights might have known.   Never fear.  Technology and modern medicine have combined to provide us with many ways to use cauterizing’s beneficial effects, while leaving behind its negative ones.

Doctors currently use two different methods of cauterization to help in a number of unwanted medical ailments.  Chemical cauterization and electrocauterization.

Chemical cauterization uses caustic chemicals to heat, and sometimes cool, the affected tissue, giving us the desired result.  Some accepted uses are in the treatment of nose bleeds, canker sores, and warts.  The most commonly used chemicals are; silver nitrate, phenol, and liquid nitrogen.

Electrocauterization heats the tissue with electricity.  A small instrument with an electric current flowing through it, is placed on the affected area.   A grounding pad, applied elsewhere on the body, will help the patient with the negative effects of the current.  This treatment should not be confused with other electrosurgical techniques such as electrodissection.

In electrodissection, the cutting of tissue using electricity, high frequency surgical devices transfer the electrical energy to human tissue.  The tissue itself causes electrical resistance resulting in the protein denaturation.  Once the intracellular water is raised above the boiling point, the cell membranes of the tissue begin to rupture causing the cutting effects.  The surgical instrument remains cool to the touch.  This is in contrast to electrocauterization where the surgical instrument itself is heated causing the burning.shutterstock_137202605

In the end, if you’re shot by a fellow hunter in the wilderness of Alaska and feel very Rambo-esque, cauterize your wound with the knowledge that modern antibiotics will help the inevitable infection.  Just don’t forget direct pressure and bandages will work better, in most cases.  Impressing your friends by burning your wound may seem manly, but dying 5 days later of a systemic infection might make you feel like a dumbass.

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