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Sympathectomy is a surgical procedure that destroys nerves in the sympathetic nervous system. The procedure is done to increase blood flow and decrease long-term pain in certain diseases that cause narrowed blood vessels. It can also be used to decrease excessive sweating. This surgical procedure cuts or destroys the sympathetic ganglia, collections of nerve cell bodies in clusters along the thoracic or lumbar spinal cord.


The autonomic nervous system that controls unwilled (involuntary) body functions, such as breathing, sweating, and blood pressure, are divided into the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic nervous system speeds the heart rate, narrows (constricts) blood vessels, and raises blood pressure. Blood pressure is controlled by means of nerve cells that run through sheaths around the arteries. The sympathetic nervous system can be described as the "fight or flight" system because it allows us to respond to danger by fighting off an attacker or by running away. When danger threatens, the sympathetic nervous system increases heart and respiratory rate, increases blood flow to muscles, and decreases blood flow to other areas, such as skin, digestive tract, and limb veins. The net effect is an increase in blood pressure.
Sympathectomy is performed to relieve intermittent constricting of blood vessels (ischemia) when the fingers, toes, ears, or nose are exposed to cold (Raynaud's phenomenon). In Raynaud's phenomenon, the affected extremities turn white, then blue, and red as the blood supply is cut off. The color changes are accompanied by numbness, tingling, burning, and pain. Normal color and feeling are restored when heat is applied. The condition sometimes occurs without direct cause but it is more often caused by an underlying medical condition, such as rheumatoid arthritis. Sympathectomy is usually less effective when Raynaud's is caused by an underlying medical condition. Narrowed blood vessels in the legs that cause painful cramping (claudication) are also treated with sympathectomy.
Sympathectomy may be helpful in treating reflex sympathetic dystrophy (RSD), a condition that sometimes develops after injury. In RSD, the affected limb is painful (causalgia) and swollen. The color, temperature, and texture of the skin change. These symptoms are related to prolonged and excessive activity of the sympathetic nervous system.
Because sweating is controlled by the sympathetic nervous system, sympathectomy is also effective in treating excessive sweating (hyperhidrosis) of the palms, armpits, or face.


To determine whether sympathectomy is needed, a reversible block of the affected nerve cell (ganglion) should be done. A reversible ganglion block interrupts nerve impulses by means of steroid and anesthetic injected into it. If the block has a positive effect on pain and blood flow in the affected area, the sympathectomy will probably be helpful. The surgical procedure should be performed only if conservative treatment has not worked. Conservative treatment includes avoiding exposure to stress and cold, physical therapy, and medications.
Sympathectomy is most likely to be effective in relieving the pain of reflex sympathetic dystrophy if it is done soon after the injury occurs. However, increased benefit from early surgery should be balanced against time needed to promote spontaneous recovery and response to conservative treatment.


Sympathectomy was traditionally done as an inpatient surgical procedure under general anesthesia. An incision was made on the mid-back, exposing the ganglia to be cut. Recent techniques are less invasive and may be done under local anesthesia and as outpatient surgery. If only one arm or leg is affected, it may be treated with a percutaneous radiofrequency technique. In this technique, the surgeon locates the ganglia by a combination of x ray and electrical stimulation. The ganglia are destroyed by applying radio waves through electrodes on the skin.
Sympathectomy for hyperhidrosis can be done by making a small incision under the armpit and introducing air into the chest cavity. The surgeon inserts a fiber optic tube (endoscope) that projects an image of the operation on a video screen. The ganglia can then be cut with fine scissors attached to the endoscope. Laser beams can also be used to destroy the ganglia.


As with any surgery, patients should discuss expected results and possible risks with their surgeons. They should tell their surgeons all medications they are taking and all their medical problems, and they should be in good general health. To improve general health, the patient may be asked to lose weight, give up smoking or alcohol, and get the proper sleep, diet, and exercise. Immediately before the surgery, patients will not be permitted to eat or drink, and the surgical site will be cleaned and scrubbed.


The surgeon will inform the patient about specific aftercare needed for the technique used. Doppler ultrasonography, a test using sound waves to measure blood flow, can help to determine whether sympathectomy has had a positive result.


Side effects of sympathectomy may include decreased blood pressure while standing, which may cause fainting spells. After sympathectomy in men, semen is sometimes ejaculated into the bladder, which may impair fertility. After a sympathectomy done by inserting an endoscope in the chest cavity, patients may experience chest pain with deep breathing. This problem usually disappears within two weeks. They may also experience pneumothorax (air in the chest cavity).
In 30% of cases, surgery for hyperhidrosis may cause increased sweating on the chest. In 2% of cases, this surgery causes increased sweating in other areas, including increased facial sweating while eating. Other complications occur less frequently. These complications include Horner's syndrome, a condition of the nervous system that causes the pupil of the eye to close, the eyelid to droop, and sweating to decrease on one side of the face. Other rare complications are nasal blockage and pain of the nerves supplying the skin between the ribs.

Normal results

Some studies report that sympathectomy relieves causalgia in as many as 75% of cases. The studies also show that it relieves hyperhidrosis in more than 90% of cases. The less invasive procedures cause very little scarring. Most patients stay in the hospital for less than one day and return to work within the week.



The American Institute for Hyperhidrosis Page. http:/

Key terms

Causalgia — A severe burning sensation sometimes accompanied by redness and inflammation of the skin. Causalgia is caused by injury to a nerve outside the spinal cord.
Claudication — Cramping or pain in a leg caused by poor blood circulation. This condition is frequently caused by hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis). Intermittent claudication occurs only at certain times, usually after exercise, and is relieved by rest.
Fiberoptics — In medicine, fiberoptics uses glass or plastic fibers to transmit light through a specially designed tube. The tube is inserted into organs or body cavities where it transmits a magnified image of the internal body structures.
Hyperhidrosis — Excessive sweating. Hyperhidrosis can be caused by heat, overactive thyroid glands, strong emotion, menopause, or infection.
Parasympathetic nervous system — The division of the autonomic (involuntary or unwilled) nervous system that slows heart rate, increases digestive and gland activity, and relaxes the sphincter muscles that close off body organs.
Percutaneous — Performed through the skin, from the Latin per, meaning through and cutis, meaning skin.
Pneumothorax — A collection of air or gas in the chest cavity that causes a lung to collapse. Pneumothorax may be caused by an open chest wound that admits air.
Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


excision or interruption of some portion of the sympathetic nervous pathway. The operation produces temporary vasodilation leading to improved nutrition of the part supplied by the vessel. It is done in cases of partial arterial obstruction with resultant trophic changes distally.
chemical sympathectomy the interruption of the transmission of impulses through a sympathetic nerve by chemical agents.
Miller-Keane Encyclopedia and Dictionary of Medicine, Nursing, and Allied Health, Seventh Edition. © 2003 by Saunders, an imprint of Elsevier, Inc. All rights reserved.


Excision of a segment of a sympathetic nerve or of one or more sympathetic ganglia.
[sympath- + G. ektomē, excision]
Farlex Partner Medical Dictionary © Farlex 2012


n. pl. sympathecto·mies
Surgical removal of a part of the sympathetic nervous system.
The American Heritage® Medical Dictionary Copyright © 2007, 2004 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.


Excision of a segment of a sympathetic nerve or of one or more sympathetic ganglia.
[sympath- + G. ektomē, excision]
Medical Dictionary for the Health Professions and Nursing © Farlex 2012


An operation to remove the SYMPATHETIC NERVOUS SYSTEM supply to an area in order to limit constriction of the blood vessels and thus improve the blood supply to the part.
Collins Dictionary of Medicine © Robert M. Youngson 2004, 2005


, sympathetectomy , sympathicectomy (sim'pă-thek'tŏ-mē, -thĕ-tek'tŏ-mē, -path'i-sek'tŏ-mē)
Excision of segment of sympathetic nerve or one or more sympathetic ganglia.
Medical Dictionary for the Dental Professions © Farlex 2012
References in periodicals archive ?
Inclusion and exclusion criteria Inclusion criteria Exclusion criteria Severe, primary, or secondary Raynaud's Active infection at the injection site phenomenon (intense and incapacitating pain) Presence of ulcers and/or necrosis Hypersensitivity to botulinum toxin or drug delivery vehicle Distal capillary filling of >8 s Earlier thoracic sympathectomy Refractory reaction to conventional medical Pregnant or breastfeeding treatments (calcium antagonists) Absence of obstructive disease confirmed by Doppler echocardiography Table 2.
Are we paying a high price for surgical sympathectomy? A systematic literature review of late complications.
The exact mechanism is unclear; however, it is suggested that 5-hydroxytryptamine (5-H[T.sub.3])-receptor antagonism during the sympathectomy induced by spinal blockade may decrease the risk of mechanoreceptor activation in the left ventricle, which could have resulted in the subsequent activation of the Bezold-Jarisch reflex, with hypotension and bradycardia.
Local or regional blocks with local anaesthetic provide good relief, and the resultant sympathectomy may be useful in improving perfusion, but this should be restricted to skilled hands and not used in NFCI, where it worsens the risk of chronic pain.
Huiku, "The effects of sympathectomy on finger photoplethysmography and temperature measurements in healthy subjects," Anesthesia and Analgesia, vol.
Seylaz, "Effect of sympathectomy on the phenotype of smooth muscle cells of middle cerebral and ear arteries of hyperlipidaemic rabbits," The Histochemical Journal, vol.
Several conditions may result in Horner's syndrome, including central (CNS) and peripheral (PNS and ANS), including syringomyelia, multiple sclerosis, brain tumors, encephalitis, lateral medullary syndrome, cervical rib, thyroid tumors and thyroidectomy, bronchogenic carcinoma, tube thoracostomy, carotid artery dissection, cavernous sinus thrombosis, middle ear infections, sympathectomy, and nerve block procedures [26, 27].
However, the portals for the retractor and the suction instrument were situated caudally from the pathology level, and a simple surgery such as sympathectomy [13], herniotomy [5], and debridement for disk infection is possible, but T1, T2, or T3 corpectomy may be very difficult to operate from a low angle view.
In another study, sympathectomy was suggested as a possibility [16].
A small chest operation (sympathectomy) cures excess sweating of the hands, arms and armpits.