What Is

My daughter needs to undergo a surgical procedure, and the doctor has recommended "minimally invasive" surgery. What type of surgery is this?  Will it be as safe — and effective — as standard surgery?
– Julie

Minimally invasive surgery is becoming more and more common in hospitals. These procedures are performed through tiny incisions instead of one large opening. Because the incisions are small, patients tend to have quicker recovery times and less discomfort than with conventional surgery all with the same benefits.

During a minimally invasive procedure, surgeons make several small incisions in the skin — just a few millimeters, in some cases. A long, thin tube with a miniature camera attached at the end (called an endoscope) is passed through one of the incisions. Tubes attached to small instruments are passed through the other openings. 

Images from the endoscope are projected onto monitors in the operating room so that surgeons can get a clear (and magnified) view of the surgical area. By manipulating buttons and dials on the handles of the long tubes, surgeons are able to explore, remove, or repair whatever's wrong inside the body.

In some cases, a patient might be scheduled for a minimally invasive procedure, but after getting a view inside the body the surgeon might have to "convert" the procedure to an open (conventional) surgery. This may be because the problem or the anatomy is different from what the surgeon expected.

Minimally invasive surgery can take a longer than conventional surgery, but the pros usually outweigh the cons. Less tissue is affected, so patients have less chance of infection. They also lose less blood, feel less pain, have less scarring, and recover more quickly than with conventional surgery. 

Not all procedures can (or should) be done through minimally invasive methods, however. The removal of cancer tumors, for example, is often best performed through open surgery. Your doctor will tell you what type of procedure is best for your child. Be sure to ask about the possible risks associated with any procedure, as well as the potential benefits.

Reviewed by: Pamela Mazzeo, MD, and Charles D. Vinocur, MD
Date reviewed: June 2009

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