What is a Retractor?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A retractor is a medical device which is used to hold the edges of the surgical field in place for the purpose of keeping the field clear. There are dozens of different types of retractors in active use, and some surgeons have specific preferences depending on the areas of the body they operate on, their training, and their experiences. These devices are available from medical supply catalogs which carry surgical supplies.

The most basic surgical retractors are hand-held tools.
The most basic surgical retractors are hand-held tools.

There are a couple of ways in which a retractor can be used. The device may act simply like a spreader, holding tissue aside so that a surgeon can clearly visualize the surgical field. For example, during abdominal surgery, once an incision is made, a surgeon may insert a retractor and use it to pull the incision apart to see inside the body. Retractors can also be used to keep specific organs back; in the abdominal surgery example, for instance, a retractor could be used to keep the bowel out of the way while the surgeon works on the liver.

Retractors are often used during surgery to keep the surgical field clear.
Retractors are often used during surgery to keep the surgical field clear.

Retractors are generally curved, and may resemble hoops, S-curves, or angled paddles. The handle is usually designed to be held comfortably by hand. A surgeon or assistant may hold a retractor in place, or the device may be clamped to free up hands and keep the area around the surgical field clear. These devices can also be handled by a medical robot which will hold the retractor steady for the surgeon.

Dental retractors are often used to reach the back of the mouth during oral surgery.
Dental retractors are often used to reach the back of the mouth during oral surgery.

These devices are also used in dental surgery to hold the mouth open and to keep the tongue back. For patients, this can sometimes be rather uncomfortable, as patients may be awake for dental procedures and the retractor can feel awkward. The device also makes it difficult to communicate, so a patient may want to make arrangements with the dentist to create a signal which can be used if something feels wrong.

Surgical retractors are available in a variety of sizes in order to accommodate children.
Surgical retractors are available in a variety of sizes in order to accommodate children.

Like other instruments used in surgery, a retractor is designed to be sterilized for safety. Surgical steel is commonly used to manufacture these tools, and they are made without seams, cracks, and other vulnerable areas which could create opportunities for bacteria to settle. After each patient, a retractor is thoroughly cleaned and sterilized in a device such as an autoclave to kill any microorganisms which may be present. This reduces the risk of transferring infectious agents from patient to patient during surgical procedures, when the body tends to be especially vulnerable.

Mouth props are one of the most commonly used type of retractors, because dentists often use them to allow full access to the mouth during procedures.
Mouth props are one of the most commonly used type of retractors, because dentists often use them to allow full access to the mouth during procedures.
A handheld dental retractor may be used by a dental assistant.
A handheld dental retractor may be used by a dental assistant.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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