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A Brief History of Surgical Instruments

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Unless you work in the healthcare industry, chances are you probably don’t know a whole lot about surgical instruments. Sure, you know they are used to perform necessary and sometimes life-saving procedures, but is there more to them than that? In fact, there is a lot more to them than you might think. A surgical instrument is specifically designed to perform specific actions to achieve desired effects or outcomes during surgery. Throughout the course of history, different kinds of tools and instruments have been developed and evolved with technology and newly developed procedures.

Within the realm of surgical instrumentation, there are several classifications. These classifications are intended to help organize instruments across the industry. Below is a sample of the different classifications used for surgical instrumentation specifically:

  • Graspers: tweezers and forceps
  • Clamps and occluders for blood vessels and other organs
  • Retractors: used to spread open skin, ribs and other tissue
  • Distractors: positioners and stereotactic devices
  • Mechanical Cutters: scalpels, lancets, drill bits, rasps, trocars, etc.
  • Dilators and Specula: access to narrow passages or incisions
  • Suction Tips and Tubs: removal of bodily fluids
  • Powered Devices: drills and dermatomes
  • Scopes and Probes
  • Measurement Devices: rulers and calipers

With so many different types and classifications of surgical instrumentations, you might be wondering where they first originated.

History of Surgical Instrumentation

Dating all the way back to prehistoric times, rough trephines that were intended for performing round craniotomies were discovered in Neolithic sites. Most believe these early surgical instrumentations were used by Shamans and were intended to release evil spirits and alleviate headaches and head traumas that were caused by war-inflicted wounds.

Surgeons and physicians from the Antiquity time period, primarily located in Greece and Rome, are credited with developing a vast array of instruments. These instruments were made using bronze, iron, and silver. With these precious metals, they developed the first scalpels, lancets curettes, tweezers, specula, trephines, forceps, probes, dilators, tubes, and surgical knives. The use of these different instruments continued into the Medieval time period, the only change being an improvement in manufacturing techniques.

The invention of new instruments was not limited to the Antiquity time period, it continued through into the Renaissance and post-Renaissance era. It was during this time period that amputation sets were first developed in response to the increase in the severity of war-inflicted wounds.

With the discovery of anesthesia and surgical asepsis, came the development of surgical instruments that allowed surgeons and physicians to penetrate the inner sanctum, that was previously considered to include forbidden cavities of the body. These parts primarily consisted of the skull, thorax, and abdomen. During the 19th and beginning years of the 20th century, new procedures were developed that required the development of new surgical instrumentation to perform. Additionally, new materials were available to manufacture these instruments, including stainless steel, chrome, titanium, and vanadium.

It can be predicted that as healthcare continues to evolve and change in response to advances in technology and discovery, new instrumentation will also be developed.