What are the risks and potential complications of urinary incontinence surgery?

As with all surgeries, urinary incontinence surgery involves risks and possible complications. Complications may become serious and life threatening in some cases. Complications can develop during surgery or recovery.

General risks of surgery 

The general risks of surgery include: 

  • Anesthesia reaction, such as an allergic reaction and problems with breathing
  • Bleeding, which can lead to shock
  • Blood clot, in particular a deep vein thrombosis that develops in the leg or pelvis. A blood clot can travel to your lungs, heart or brain and cause a pulmonary embolism, heart attack, or stroke.
  • Infection and septicemia, which is the spread of a local infection to the blood

Potential complications of urinary incontinence surgery

There has been some concern about the safety of synthetic slings used in urinary incontinence sling procedures. Synthetic slings are used in some, but not all, types of sling procedures. Ask your doctor about the specific type of sling used and if a procedure that does not use a synthetic sling is an option for you.    

Potential complications of urinary incontinence surgery vary depending on the specific procedure but can include:

  • Damage to the urethra, bladder, rectum or vagina
  • Difficulty emptying or inability to empty the bladder
  • Rejection or breakdown of the synthetic material used for the urinary incontinence sling procedure
  • Return of urinary incontinence
  • Urination problems including frequent need to urinate and worsening of urine leakage 

Reducing your risk of complications

You can reduce the risk of certain complications by following your treatment plan and:

  • Following activity, dietary and lifestyle restrictions and recommendations before surgery and during recovery 
  • Notifying your doctor immediately of any concerns, such as bleeding, bloody urine, fever, increase in pain, problems with urination, or wound redness, swelling or drainage 
  • Taking your medications exactly as directed
  • Telling all members of your care team if you have any allergies

How do I prepare for my urinary incontinence surgery?

You are an important member of your own healthcare team. The steps you take before surgery can improve your comfort and outcome.

You can prepare for urinary incontinence surgery by:

  • Answering all questions about your medical history, allergies, and medications. This includes prescriptions, over-the-counter drugs, herbal treatments, and vitamins. It is a good idea to carry a current list of your medical conditions, medications, and allergies at all times.
  • Asking your doctor if shaving your pubic area is necessary before surgery. A member of the nursing staff usually performs this before the procedure.
  • Following instructions to clear your bowels before surgery. Your doctor will give you directions if this is necessary.
  • Getting preoperative testing as directed. Testing will vary depending on your age, health, and specific procedure. Preoperative testing may include a chest X-ray, EKG (electrocardiogram), blood tests, and other tests as needed.
  • Losing excess weight before the surgery through a healthy diet and exercise plan
  • Not eating or drinking before surgery as directed. Your surgery may be cancelled if you eat or drink too close to the start of surgery because you can choke on stomach contents during anesthesia.
  • Stopping smoking as soon as possible. Even quitting for just a few days can be beneficial and help the healing process.
  • Taking or stopping medications exactly as directed. This may include not taking aspirin, ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), and blood thinners. 

Questions to ask your doctor

Facing surgery can be stressful. It is common for patients to forget some of their questions during a doctor’s office visit. Contact your doctor with concerns and questions before surgery and between appointments.

It is also a good idea to bring a list of questions to your appointments. Questions can include:

  • Why do I need urinary incontinence surgery? Are there any other options for treating my condition?
  • What type of surgical procedure will I need? Will I need a sling procedure? Is a nonsynthetic sling an option for me?
  • How long will the surgery take? When can I go home?
  • What restrictions will I have after the surgery? When can I return to work, sexual intercourse, and other activities?
  • What assistance will I need at home?
  • How long will I need to have a urinary catheter after the surgery?
  • How should I take my medications?
  • How will you treat my pain?
  • When should I follow up with you? When should I see you for follow-up? Ask for numbers to call during and after regular hours.