Understanding Sympathectomy

A sympathectomy is procedure to cut or block a nerve in the middle of your body. It’s done to treat problems such as severe sweating (hyperhidrosis) and severe facial blushing. During the procedure, the sympathetic nerve along your spine is cut, burned, or clipped. This prevents signals passing from your brain through the nerve and causing symptoms. Depending on what part of the nerve is treated, the procedure may be called endoscopic thoracic sympathectomy (ETS) or endoscopic lumbar sympathectomy.

How to say it


Why sympathectomy is done

Sympathectomyis a type of surgery to treat severe excess sweating, a condition called hyperhydrosis. It’s often an ongoing (chronic) condition. Sweating is a normal process. It helps manage body temperature and other processes of the body. But excess sweating is more than is needed to do this.

Sympathectomymay also be done if you have chronic severe facial blushing or Raynaud phenomenon. Raynaud phenomenon is a disorder that causes decreased blood flow to the fingers. In some cases, it also causes less blood flow to the ears, toes, nipples, knees, or nose. This happens because of spasms of blood vessels in those areas. The spasms happen in response to cold, stress, or emotional upset.

The treatment may also be done for other problems. These include:

  • Poor blood flow to the legs (vascular insufficiency)

  • Chest pain (angina)

  • Abnormal heart rhythms (arrhythmia)

After a sympathectomy, the brain can't send signals that cause the symptoms of these conditions. This procedure may be an option if other types of treatment haven’t worked.

How sympathectomy is done

The treatment is done in a hospital, and takes 1 to 2 hours. During the procedure:

  • You’ll lie on your side on a surgery table. Your arm will lie on a board and be moved out of the way so the doctor can reach your ribcage.

  • You’re given medicine to make you sleep through the treatment.

  • The doctor will make 2 or 3 small cuts (incisions) on one side of your chest between your ribs. A thin tube with a light and camera at the end (endoscope) is put through one of the cuts. This is to help the doctor see the procedure. Small tools are put through another cut.

  • The doctor deflates your lung and moves it aside. This is so the doctor can reach the nerve along your spine.

  • The doctor cuts or burns the sympathetic nerve with heat. Or he or she may put one or more small clips on the nerve.

  • The doctor then re-inflates your lung. The scope and tools are removed, and the incisions are closed with stitches (sutures).

  • You’ll have a chest X-ray after the surgery. This is to make sure your lung is inflated back to normal.

  • You will likely need to stay in the hospital overnight.

Risks of sympathectomy

  • Pain

  • Bleeding

  • Infection

  • Excess sweating in new areas (compensatory hyperhidrosis)

  • Nerve injury that causes drooped eyelids and problems with the pupils (Horner syndrome)

  • Numbness (paresthesia)

  • Lung injury and collapsed lung (pneumothorax)

  • Blood around the lung (hemothorax)

  • Fluid around the lung (pleural effusion)

  • Slow heart beat (bradycardia)

If your doctor finds that he or she is unable to complete the procedure using a laparoscope, the doctor will need to make a large incision.