Have you had a surgical procedure recently and now you’ve developed a lump that looks like a cyst? Chances are that you have a seroma, which occurs when fluids build up at the site of a surgical incision and cause swelling.
If you are about to undergo surgery, it’s beneficial to be aware of the signs and symptoms of a seroma and other potential surgical complications. Most seromas are harmless and will go away on their own, but in some cases they may become infected or lead to further complications, so you’ll want to take the right steps to avoid these issues.
It can be scary to experience any type of complication after surgery, but you may be happy to hear that there are safe and natural seroma treatments that you can do at home. With the help of your surgeon or health care provider, you’ll be able to reduce your chances of complications and enable your seroma, and surgical incision, to heal properly.
What Is a Seroma?
A seroma is a complication that can occur as a result of surgery. It involves the buildup of fluid in a tissue or organ. Most often, a seroma will develop at the site of a surgical incision or where tissue was removed, but in some cases it occurs after an injury.
The fluid that causes a seroma, called serum, leaks out of damaged blood vessels and vessels of the lymphatic system, causing swelling and a lump that looks like a large cyst. Seromas vary in size and they can take up to a year, in some cases, to go away. (1)
Seromas are common after surgery and usually they are harmless, but they don’t come without the risk of complications. A seroma may prolong your recovery and hospital stay after surgery, and it can increase your health care costs too. Plus, it may delay the healing of your wound or incision after surgery, which puts you at risk of developing an infection.
Signs & Symptoms
A seroma will typically cause the following signs and symptoms:
- A swollen lump of fluid
- A clear discharge that builds up under the skin and sometimes leaks out onto the skin’s surface
- Tenderness on and around the swollen area
- Redness and warmth near the surgical site
- Soreness when the affected area is touched
A small seroma will usually resolve on its own or drain onto the surface of your skin, but that’s not always the case. Sometimes, if a seroma is left untreated, it can calcify and form hard knots. Calcification is when calcium gradually accumulates in an area of body tissue. This hardens the tissue and can cause problems if it interferes with organ function.
A seroma can also become infected and develop into a abscess, which is a collection of pus that builds up in your tissues and causes redness, pain and swelling. The following symptoms may indicate that your seroma has become infected: (2)
- The discharge changes color
- The discharge becomes bloody
- The seroma develops an odor
- You develop a fever
- Your blood pressure changes
- Your heart rate and breathing increases
Causes & Risk Factors
Most seromas form after a surgical procedure that involves moving or disrupting body tissue. During surgery, blood and lymphatic vessels are damaged and fluid from these vessels leak out into the body’s tissues, forming a collection or lump.
Even though drainage tubes are typically used in and around an incision to remove fluid and prevent a seroma, sometimes some fluid remains after surgery and over time it can cause a seroma. Or a seroma can occur if drainage tubes aren’t used during surgery and the fluid has no place to go.
According to a 2016 systematic review conducted at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, after reviewing 75 studies involving over 7,000 patients, researchers found that effective strategies for seroma prevention included the use of closed-suction drains, keeping the drains in place until the output volume was minimal and maintaining a high pressure gradient in the grains. Other beneficial preventative measures include ligating blood vessels with clips or sutures, using tension sutures and immobilizing the surgical site. (3)
It may also be helpful to wear compression garments (or a tight-fitting bra) after a surgical procedure in order to put pressure on the surgical site and reduce the risk of fluid leaks. Talk to your surgeon about the best ways to prevent a seroma after surgery.
Sometimes, intravenous steroids are given after surgery to prevent seromas by inhibiting the body’s inflammatory response. Research shows mixed results on the efficacy and safety of steroids after surgery, especially because they may cause side effects like immunosuppression. (4, 5)
- Plastic surgery
- breast augmentation
- abdominoplasty (tummy tuck)
- Hernia repair (such as surgery for hiatal hernia)
- Abdominal surgery
- Cesarean section
Anyone undergoing a surgical procedure is at risk of developing a seroma afterwards, but longer or more extensive surgeries that disrupt a large amount of tissue are more risky. (8)
A seroma can also develop after an injury, such as a fall or car accident. When an inflammatory response occurs as a result of your injury, this may bring on the formation of a seroma.
A seroma will commonly resolve on its own within a month by draining onto the surface of your skin or reabsorbing into the body. For more serious seromas, it can take up to a year for the symptoms to resolve.
Bigger seromas may require aspiration, which is when the fluid is drained with a syringe. A larger seroma may need to be drained more than once before the seroma goes away. If it persists after many draining attempts, your doctor may recommend that you remove the entire seroma cavity surgically. (9)
If a seroma becomes infected and develops into an abscess, further medical treatment is required. If an abscess is left untreated, it can spread to the bloodstream and put you at risk of developing sepsis, a life-threatening systemic infection. When seromas become infected, you are typically treated with antibiotics. Some of the most common antibiotics used to treat an infected seroma include penicillins, macrolides and cephalosporins. If the infection is extensive, it may require intravenous antibiotic administration.
Another type of treatment that is sometimes used by surgeons is sclerotherapy, which involves filling the seroma cavity with an irritating substance that seals the area. Some substances that are commonly used in sclerotherapy include talc (which is used to make talcum powder) and tetracyclines, which are antibiotics. (10)
5 Natural Ways to Help Get Rid of a Seroma
1. Apply Heat
Applying a warm compress or heating pad to a seroma can help to promote fluid drainage and reduce soreness or tension in the area. Make sure the compress isn’t too hot and that you only leave it on the seroma for about 10 minutes, at least three times per day. It may take up to six weeks for you to notice any improvements, but keep applying the compress and let your doctor know if the seroma becomes larger. (11)
2. Elevate the Affected Area and Limit Activity
Elevating the area that has a seroma can help the fluid to drain in some cases. After surgery, follow instructions from your doctor regarding rest time and what positions are best for drainage. Many doctors will recommend that you limit activity after surgery until swelling has reduced. Also, too much activity after a surgical procedure may slow healing in some cases. You can usually walk around and do light activity, but refrain from exercise that will stress the incision area. (12)
3. Keep the Area Clean
A seroma can become a serious complication if it becomes infected, so it’s important to keep the area, especially the surgical incision, clean. You want to keep out bacteria and other pathogens so that the seroma can resolve on its own and won’t require any medical treatment. Make sure you don’t touch the area unless you’ve washed your hands and if you are applying a compress, be sure that it’s clean.
4. Take Care of Your Drainage Tubes
If you have drainage tubes for your wound after you return home from surgery, it’s important that you follow the instructions given to you by your doctor. The tubes need to be kept clean, so if you are changing them with your hands, make sure to wash them thoroughly before handling the tubes. Also, make sure you empty the drainage tubes as instructed and don’t obstruct drainage by leaning or sleeping on the tubes.
5. Use Compression Garments
Compression garments are commonly used as a preventive measure for seromas after a surgical procedure. The type of garment you are using depends on the surgery, but generally, tight-fitting bras will be recommended for breast surgeries and girdle-like garments are used for surgeries affecting the abdominal area. Compression garments are used to apply pressure to the affected area and reduce swelling, and usually a doctor will recommend wearing them for several weeks until the threat of fluid buildup is gone. (13)
Although it’s common for seromas to resolve on their own, you should keep your doctor or health care provider updated about the status of your seroma. If it does not improve after a month, let him or her know. If the amount of fluid in the seroma seems to be increasing, the swelling increases or it is painful, you should contact your doctor right away so that it can be drained and an infection can be ruled out.
Seroma Key Points
- A seroma is a complication that can occur as a result of surgery when fluids build up in your body tissues or an organ.
- A seroma looks like a lump or cyst that’s right under the surface of the skin. It may feel tender, warm to the touch and may even become painful.
- Most seromas are caused by a surgical procedure that involves moving or disrupting body tissue. During surgery, blood and lympathic vessels are damaged and fluid from these vessels leak out into the body’s tissues, forming a collection or lump.
- Drainage tubes are typically used in and around the incision area to avoid seromas, but they can occur anyway. Many times, small seromas will resolve on their own, but sometimes aspiration or frequent draining is necessary.
5 Natural Ways to Help Get Rid of a Seroma
- Apply heat
- Elevate the affected area and limit activity
- Keep the area clean
- Take care of your drainage tubes
- Use compression garments