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Adrenalectomy—Open Surgery

Adrenalectomy—Open Surgery

Adrenalectomy is the removal of one or both adrenal glands on top of each kidney. The adrenal glands make several hormones, including cortisol, aldosterone and sex steroids. The adrenal glands also make adrenaline and noradrenaline in small amounts.

Adrenal Glands

Adrenal Kidney

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Your adrenal gland may be removed if you have any of the following:

  • Adrenal cancer
  • Diseases of the adrenal gland, causing it to make too much of a hormone such as Cushing's syndrome, Conn’s syndrome and Pheochromocytoma
  • A large adrenal mass
  • An adrenal mass that cannot be identified with a needle biopsy

Description of the Procedure

Your doctor makes an incision under your rib cage or in your abdomen and separates the adrenal gland from the kidney. Your doctor removes the gland through the incision and closes the site with stitches or staples.

Your doctor may place a tiny, flexible tube into the area where the gland was removed. This tube drains any fluids that may build up after surgery. Your doctor removes it within one week after your operation.

The procedure can take between one and a half hours to three and a half hours. Anesthesia prevents pain during surgery. Pain medicine can manage pain or soreness during recovery. 

Immediately After Procedure

Your doctor sends the adrenal gland(s) to a lab for examination. You will be sent to a recovery room and will stay in the hospital for about 4-5 days. 

Postoperative Care

At the Hospital

  • You will likely require pain medicines.
  • You may feel nauseous for a few hours after surgery. Your doctor may place a nasogastric tube through your nose and into your stomach to drain fluids and stomach acid. You will not be able to eat or drink until this is removed. When you begin eating, you may need to eat a lighter, blander diet than usual.
  • You may be given special compression stockings to decrease the possibility of blood clots forming in your legs.
  • Your body may be making substantially less natural steroid hormones. Your doctor may start you on steroid medication immediately after surgery and gradually reduce the dosage.

At Home

Recovery time may be as long as 4-6 weeks. To help ensure a smooth recovery:

  • You'll need to be monitored to see that your body produces the right amount of steroids and hormones. Monitoring also verifies that you're taking the correct dose of steroid or hormone replacement medicine.
  • Your doctor may ask you to weigh yourself daily and report any weight gain of two or more pounds over 24 hours. Weight gain may indicate that you're retaining fluid. 
  • Try to increase your physical activity according to your doctor's instructions. This will help you avoid respiratory complications from the general anesthesia and improve the recovery of your digestive system.
  • Ask your doctor about when it is safe to shower, bathe or soak in water.

Possible Procedure Complications

Complications from having an adrenalectomy may include:

  • Insufficient cortisol production
  • Decreases in blood pressure
  • Bleeding
  • Infections in the wound, urinary tract or lungs
  • Blood clots in the legs
  • Injury to nearby organs or structures
  • Adverse reaction to anesthesia

Factors that may increase the risk of complications include:

  • Increased age
  • Obesity
  • Long-standing cortisol excess
  • Smoking
  • Poor nutrition
  • Recent or chronic illness
  • Heart or lung problems
  • Alcoholism
  • Use of certain medicines such as blood pressure pills, muscle relaxants, tranquilizers, sleeping pills, insulin, steroids, sedatives or hypnotic agents
  • Use of illegal drugs such as LSD, hallucinogens, marijuana or cocaine


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Content was created using EBSCO’s Health Library. Edits to original content made by Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia. This information is not a substitute for professional medical advice.

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