What are sinuses?
Sinuses are air-filled spaces in the bones of the face and head. They are connected to the inside of the nose through small openings. The sinuses are important in the way we breathe through the nose and in the flow of mucus in the nose and throat. When the sinuses are working properly we are not aware of them but they often are involved in infections and inflammation, called sinusitis, which cause symptoms.
What is sinusitis?
Sinusitis is caused by blocked, inflamed or infected sinuses. Patients will often complain of a blocked nose, pressure or congestion in the face, runny nose or mucus problems. Other symptoms include headache and lose of sense of smell. Sinusitis can be difficult to diagnose and your specialist will want to examine your nose with a telescope in order to help find out what is wrong. Most patients with sinusitis get better without treatment or respond to treatment with antibiotics, nose drops, sprays or tablets. In a very small number of patients with severe sinusitis an operation may be needed. In rare cases if sinusitis is left untreated it can lead to complications with infection spreading into the nearby eye socket or into the fluid around the brain. These very rare complications are just some of the reasons that a sinus operation may become necessary.
What is endoscopic sinus surgery or FESS?
Endoscopic Sinus Surgery is the name given to operations for sinus problems when treatment with tablets or sprays has not helped. Surgery is performed though the nostrils, with no cuts or stitches on the face. Before any operation patients will be treated using drops, tablets or sprays for a period of weeks if not months. You will usually need to have a CT scan to confirm the diagnosis and to help the surgeon plan what type of operation will help you best.
Do I have to have the operation?
In some patients an operation can be avoided by use of antibiotics and steroid medicines, and surgery is usually only considered when this has failed. If you have little trouble by way of symptoms, or have other conditions that make surgery or anaesthetics high risk, an operation may not be the best way to help you.
Sinus surgery is very effective in about 90% of patients, but sometimes sinus problems can come back in the future, and roughly 1 in 8 patients will need another sinus operation within 5 – 10 years.
It is worth remembering that you can always change your mind about the decision to have an operation. If you are unsure you also have a right to ask to see another doctor for a second opinion about your treatment.
How is the operation done?
Usually the operation is done with you asleep (General Anaesthetic) but it can also be done with just your nose anaesthetised (Local Anaesthetic). The operation is all done inside your nose. The surgeon will use special telescopes and instruments to unblock your sinuses. Small amounts of bone and swollen lining blocking your sinuses are removed. Once the sinuses are unblocked, the inflammation usually settles and your symptoms should start to get better. Rarely there maybe some bruising around the eye but this is very uncommon. There should be no need for incisions (cuts) unless the operation is a complicated one in which case this will have been discussed with you before the operation.
After the Operation
Immediately after the operation you may feel your nose is blocked. You may be advised to rinse the nose with salt water to help relieve this. Your doctor will inform you if any dressings have been left in the nose, and whether these dissolve by themselves, or if they have to be removed.
Does it hurt?
It is common for the nose to be quite blocked and to have some mild pain for a few weeks after the operation. This usually responds to simple painkillers. If you develop severe headaches you should contact the ward or GP, or attend your nearest casualty department.
Can I blow my nose?
It is important that you do not blow you nose for the first 48 hours following your operation. Your surgeon will advise you on when you can start to gently blow your nose. Some doctors recommend the use of drops, ointments and salt water sprays after the operation. You will be given specific instructions by the ward staff before your discharge from hospital. Some mucus and blood stained fluid may drain from your nose for the first week or two following the operation and this is normal. Heavy bleeding should be reviewed by a doctor. It is important to stay away from dusty and smoky environments while you are recovering.
How long will I be off work?
You can expect to go home on the day of your surgery or the day after your operation depending on the size of your operation. You will need to rest at home for at least a week. Most people are able to return to work and normal activities between 10 – 14 days after surgery. If you do heavy lifting and carrying at work you should be off work for at least two weeks. You will be given instructions on when to return to the hospital for your follow-up visit.
All operations carry some element of risk in the form of possible side effects. There are some risks that you must know about before giving consent to this treatment. These potential complications are very uncommon. You should discuss with your surgeon about the likelihood of problems in your case before you decide to go ahead with the operation.
- Bleeding - Bleeding is a risk of any operation. It is very common for small amounts of bleeding to come from the nose in the days following the operation. Major bleeding is extremely uncommon and it is very rare for a transfusion to be required.
- Eye problems - The sinuses are very close to the wall of the eye socket. Sometimes minor bleeding can occur into the eye socket and this is usually noticed as some bruising around the eye. This usually gets better without any special treatment, although it is important that you do not blow your nose. More serious bleeding into the eye socket sometimes can occur, however this is very rare. This can cause severe swelling of the eye and can even cause double vision or in very rare cases loss of sight. If such a serious eye complication did occur you would be seen by an eye specialist and may require further operations.
- Spinal Fluid Leak - The sinuses are very close to the bone at the base of the brain. All sinus operations carry a small risk of damage to this thin bone with leakage of fluid from around the brain into the nose, or other related injuries. If this rare complication does happen you will have to stay in hospital longer and may require another operation to stop the leak. On very rare occasions infection has spread from the sinuses into the spinal fluid causing meningitis but this is extremely uncommon. You can discuss this complication with your surgeon before the operation.
How often do complications happen?
In general, complications are very rare. In a survey of all ENT surgeons who do this type of operation in England, minor eye complications happened in one in every five hundred operations and spinal fluid leaks happened in one case in every thousand operations, so the risks are small. If you are particularly worried you should ask your surgeon about his or her experience of these complications.
By Gerry McGarry
Disclaimer: This publication is designed for the information of patients. Whilst every effort has been made to ensure accuracy, the information contained may not be comprehensive and patients should not act upon it without seeking professional advice.