These Common Surgeries Have the Highest Death Rates

No one wants to consider complications when they undergo surgery. The odds are in your favor, but some common procedures still involve fatalities. These are the most dangerous surgeries, ranked by their mortality rates. One heart-related procedure has a death rate of 32% (page 10).

1. Spinal osteomyelitis surgery

elderly man with backache
Man with a backache |
  • Mortality rate: 6.9%
  • Complications: secondary infection

Antibiotics take care of most spinal infections, so requiring spinal osteomyelitis surgery is unusual. However, when you need it, the complex procedure will remove the spine’s infected disk or disks. Recovery can be quite painful.

Next: This surgery requires delicate physical reconstruction.

2. Esophagectomy

A doctor writes on a clipboard.
Your family can also be your biggest support system when you consider surgery. | Megaflopp/iStock/Getty Images
  • Mortality rate: 6-7%
  • Complications: blood loss, pneumonia, and injury to the spleen or the trachea

An open esophagectomy, or esophageal resection, is a type of surgery in which a part of the esophagus or the entire esophagus is removed. The procedure carries a lot of risk due to the reconstruction of the area between the stomach and the healthy part of the esophagus.

Next: Doctors will only perform this dangerous procedure in emergencies.

3. Surgical ventricular restoration

A doctor and patient have a consultation in a hospital room.
Emergency surgeries? A shocking thought, but very possible. | Monkeybusinessimages/iStock/Getty Images
  • Mortality rate: 8%
  • Complications: heart failure and infection

This surgery is great at stopping heart failure in its tracks, but there’s a reason it’s utilized for emergencies only. The mortality rate is still 8% even though improvements have occurred over the years.

Next: A little organ with big surgery risks

4. Pancreatectomy

Doctor and patient talking across a table.
A serious risk to consider | AlexRaths/iStock/Getty Images
  • Mortality rate: 10%
  • Complications: delayed gastric emptying and pancreatic fistula

Having your pancreas removed is a pretty risky procedure. While the mortality rate has decreased in recent years, you may still experience complications.

Next: Experts say this surgery is the most burdensome. 

5. Removal of part of the large intestine

Senior woman in hospital laying in bed.
Serious operations can affect your emotions. | Shironosov/iStock/Getty Image
  • Mortality rate: 16.9%
  • Complications: heart attack, blood clots, and incisional hernia

The most burdensome emergency surgery involves removing part of the large intestine. The most common reason for this procedure is a symptom called volvulus, meaning the large intestine twists itself into a knot and creates a blockage.

Next: This common procedure killed a politician.

6. Gallbladder removal

Rep. John Murtha (D-PA)
Rep. John Murtha died after complications from this surgery. | Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images
  • Mortality rate: 19%
  • Complications: bile leakage, deep vein thrombosis, and infection

U.S. doctors perform over 500,000 gallbladder removals each year. While death from the routine surgery is rare, it does happen. In 2010, Democratic Rep. John Murtha died after complications from the procedure. The mortality varies depending on whether the surgery is elective or an emergency. An emergency cholecystectomy is “as high as 19% in ill elderly patients,” according to The New York Times.

Next: A surgery to manage the effects of your original surgery

7. Removal of abdominal adhesions

female holding her belly due to a stomach ache
Abdominal adhesions should not be taken lightly. |
  • Mortality rate: 22%
  • Complications: infection

Months and even years after successful intestinal surgeries, patients can develop painful adhesions — basically, scar tissue. Doctors must treat them as soon as possible otherwise the patient could get really sick. Unfortunately, abdominal adhesions removal comes with a 22% mortality rate, especially for older people.

Next: This exploratory surgery has a high mortality rate.

8. Laparotomy

The side of a hospital bed seen on a blue floor.
Some operations might come with serious side effects. |
  • Mortality rate: 23.76%
  • Complications: hemorrhaging, infection, bowel blockages, and damage to internal organs

A laparotomy involves making a large incision through the abdominal wall to gain access to the abdominal cavity. Its mortality rate is large because the surgeries are exploratory. The patients tend to be ill when this procedure occurs. Sometimes their condition is too grave for further operations.

Next: The second highest mortality rate

9. Craniectomy

MRI brain scan
  • Mortality rate: 26.4%
  • Complications: stroke, seizures, spinal fluid leakage, and excessive swelling of the brain

Brain surgery is dangerous — there’s no doubt about it. But a craniectomy is especially brutal because it requires that the piece of skull removed to access the brain is not replaced immediately after the surgery is complete, meaning the patient is at risk for brain damage.

According to a 2013 study, the “30-day mortality rate was 26.4% in traumatically brain-injured patients undergoing decompressive craniectomy.”

Next: This life-changing surgery has the biggest mortality rate.

10. Carotid artery stenting

Operating tools rest beside a surgical table.
Operating tools rest beside a surgical table. | Mahmoud Zayyat/AFP/Getty Images
  • Mortality rate: 32%
  • Complications: stroke or mini-stroke, narrowing of arteries, and blood clots

A narrowed carotid artery must be opened. Otherwise, a patient could have a stroke. To do this, a surgeon will insert a stent into a major artery — usually the femoral artery in the upper leg — and thread it through the patient’s arteries until it reaches the carotid. He or she inflates a balloon through the stent to open the carotid.

Sadly, a 2015 study found that the risk can outweigh the reward; carotid stenting has a 32% mortality rate at two years after the procedure.

Next: Five more common procedures with high mortality rates

1. Stomach ulcer surgery

A woman holding her stomach while sitting in an office.
Stomach ulcer survery is relatively common. | PRImageFactory/iStock/Getty Images
  • Mortality rate: 6.8%
  • Complications: recurring ulceration, iron deficiency, vitamin B12 deficiency, and folate deficiency

According to a recent study, 42% of those who had stomach ulcer surgery experienced complications. Luckily, surgery on stomach ulcers is much less common than it used to be.

Next: This surgery commonly has scary complications.

11. Partial colectomy

Three surgeons working on a patient.
Any operation comes with risks. |
  • Mortality rate: 5.33%
  • Complications: adhesions, injury to the bladder, and leaking between sections of the colon

A partial colectomy is performed when a patient is diagnosed with colon cancer, Crohn’s disease, precancerous polyps, or intestinal trauma. The mortality rate isn’t terrible (5.33%), but unfortunately, complications are common — some of which can be fatal.

Next: The mortality risk for this procedure increases with age. 

13. Coronary bypass

Human heart | magicmine
  • Mortality rate: 1%
  • Complications: stroke, kidney damage or failure, hypertension, and loss of mental sharpness

Your risks associated with a coronary bypass largely depend on your age and fitness level. The death rate is a mere 1% for those under 65, but it increases with age.

NextYou’ll have to spend time in the ICU after this complicated surgery. 

2. Septal myotomy

Doctor and patient talking across a table.
This surgery is quite complicated. | Daizuoxin/iStock/Getty Images
  • Mortality rate: 0.4%
  • Complications: irregular heart rhythms, blood clots leading to stroke, aortic valve problems, and removal of too much heart muscle

When done successfully, this surgery reduces the thickening of the heart muscles. The procedure is quite complicated, and you’ll have to spend time in the ICU if you survive. Fortunately, this surgery has a low mortality rate of only 0.4% in the first 30 days afterward.

Next: This weight-loss procedure is extremely risky.

5. Gastric bypass

Man measuring his stomach for weight gain
Gastric bypass surgery comes with risks. | Ljupco/iStock/Getty Images
  • Mortality rate: <0.5%
  • Complications: bowel obstruction, gallstones, stomach perforation, and ulcers

Gastric bypass surgery helps a lot of people, but doctors warn patients about its risks, especially because the patients carry so much excess weight. Those who choose to have the surgery also have an increased risk for complications with anesthesia, because it’s often difficult to insert the tube into their airways.

Next: Dieting may not be enough for people considering this surgery.

8. Liposuction

A doctor and patient going over files and x-rays.
Lipo comes with its share of risks. | NanoStockk/iStock/Getty Images
  • Mortality rate: very low
  • Complications: systemic infections, blood clots, fat clogs in the lungs, and stomach wall perforations

Liposuction seems like a dream come true, but for some, it’s a nightmare. An old study showed a death rate of about 20 in every 100,000 patients who underwent liposuction between 1994 and 1998.

Next: You must weigh the benefits of surgery, too!

The benefits of surgery

Close-up of surgeons hands holding surgical scissors and passing surgical equipment, motion blur background.
The decision to undergo surgery is never an easy one. | Xmee/iStock/Getty Images

Obviously, the benefits of surgery often outweigh the risks. Always arm yourself with information and talk to your doctor when considering a procedure. It’s crucial that you trust your doctor — and it’s perfectly acceptable to get a second opinion. If you need one of the following procedures, don’t panic; just know the risks.

Next: Here’s how to cope with the danger of surgery.

How to deal with surgery fear

A doctor goes over details on a laptop with a couple.
Your doctor and family will help you through this difficult time. |

All surgical procedures are nerve-wracking. If you feel anxious about your scheduled surgery, you’re not alone. You can minimize your surgery risks by staying as healthy as possible beforehand. Get plenty of rest, exercise, eat a healthy diet, and make sure you take your medications. If you’re still struggling, talk to your doctor.