The Risk of Death From Surgery

The serious risks of surgery

Multi-ethnic doctors operating girl at hospital

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If you are considering surgery there is always a risk of death due to the procedure or anesthesia that is given during the procedure. This is true of outpatient procedures and inpatient procedures, even with the surgery is an optional procedure such as plastic surgery. 

While there is always a risk of death, this risk varies widely between types of surgeries and patients. This is why surgery should never be taken lightly, the possibility of death is very real, even with minor dental procedures.

Some surgeries have a much higher risk level than others, however, it is very rare for a healthy individual to die during a minor dental procedure. Other procedures are a much higher risk. 

For example, during some open heart surgeries, the heart is actually stopped for almost an hour before being restarted. That surgery has a higher risk than carpal tunnel surgery which is performed on a patient’s hand and wrist, often in an outpatient surgery center.

Your Health History

Your personal health history (including diabetes, breathing problems, and smoking history), age, weight, family health history and your general state of health will directly impact your personal level of risk when having surgery. 

A healthy person has a lower risk than an unhealthy person. A person with an infection is more at risk than people who don't have an infection. A non-smoker will have a lower risk than a smoker, and a physically active person will have a lower risk than a sedentary person. 

Personal risk factors include:

  • Breathing issues
  • Problems with blood clotting
  • Abuse of drugs or alcohol
  • One or more chronic diseases

The Surgery and the Surgeon

The type of surgery being performed plays a huge role in how high the risk of death will be. Brain surgery has a higher risk than a toe surgery. 

Heart surgery will typically have a higher risk than cosmetic surgery, partially because heart surgery is only done when an individual has a heart problem, but cosmetic surgery is often done to enhance the appearance with no medical issues present. 

Surgeries related to trauma, such as a serious car accident, have a higher risk level than a planned and scheduled procedure.


If you have had issues with anesthesia in the past, you are more likely to have complications with anesthesia during any future procedures. In some cases, you are more likely to have anesthesia issues if a close family member has had issues.

One serious reaction to anesthesia, malignant hyperthermia, is genetic and causes the patient to have a very high fever along with other issues when exposed to anesthesia. The skill of the anesthesia provider also plays a role in your level of risk. 

It is also important to know that deaths during and immediately after surgery are usually a result of a reaction to anesthesia rather than an issue with the surgical procedure itself.

Understanding Your Risk

If you're considering surgery, ask your surgeon about the risk of death during the procedure you are planning. Your healthcare provider will take your personal health into account along with the typical risks of the procedure to estimate your risk level.

It is not unreasonable to ask for your risk as a number, as in "there's a 5% risk of death during this procedure."

The American College of Surgeons created a Surgical Risk Calculator that takes functional status, medical history, body mass index (BMI), age, and smoking status, among other variables, into account to determine level of surgical risk.

BMI is a dated, flawed measure. It does not take into account factors such as body composition, ethnicity, sex, race, and age. 
Even though it is a biased measure, BMI is still widely used in the medical community because it’s an inexpensive and quick way to analyze a person’s potential health status and outcomes.

Discuss your concerns with your surgeon and find out what kind of risk is involved in the surgery you need.

A Word From Verywell

Understanding your surgical risk and why your risk level is what it is can be very helpful when preparing for surgery because it can allow you to take action to reduce that risk before the procedure happens. 

For example, stopping smoking before surgery can dramatically reduce the chances of being on a ventilator for a prolonged period of time, and getting glucose levels under control can dramatically improve the outcome for diabetics.

3 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. MedlinePlus. Malignant hyperthermia. April 8, 2019.

  2. American College of Surgeons. Surgical risk calculator.

  3. Duggan EW, Carlson K, Umpierrez GE. Perioperative hyperglycemia management: an update. Anesthesiology. 2017;126(3):547-560. doi:10.1097/ALN.0000000000001515.

Additional Reading

By Jennifer Whitlock, RN, MSN, FN
Jennifer Whitlock, RN, MSN, FNP-C, is a board-certified family nurse practitioner. She has experience in primary care and hospital medicine.