What are the risks of jaw surgery?

Every surgery carries with it a number of risks. The risk in all surgeries that require general anaesthetic is that there could be a reaction to the anaesthetic. While rare, some of the possible side-effects of general anaesthetic include heart attack, stroke, bronchitis, pneumonia, difficulty breathing, increased or decreased blood pressure, cardiac irregularities, hoarseness or voice changes, and even death. If you are generally healthy, there is little risk that you will suffer any of these side-effects, but it is very important to inform your surgeon of your medical history, allergies, and any previous negative reactions to anaesthetic to ensure that you can be safely administered a general anaesthetic.

There are some risks that are specific to jaw surgery. These may include, but are not limited to:  

  •  Facial and jaw swelling, lasting several days or weeks.
  •  Bleeding during and after surgery, which may be severe enough to require a blood transfusion (less than 1% of cases.)
  •  Allergic reaction to medications or materials used during or after the surgery (less than 1% of cases.)
  • Delayed or non-healing of bone; sometimes requiring a second surgery and/or bone graft to repair (less than 1% of cases.)
  • Relapse of bone (bones return to original position), which may require additional orthodontics, surgery and/or bone grafting.
  • Bruising and discolouration of the skin around the jaw, eyes and nose.
  • Diminished sense of smell (upper jaw surgery only.)
  • Change in cosmetic appearance.
  • Loss of feeling, pain or tingling numbness in chin, lips, tongue, gums or teeth, which occurs in a significant number of patients. These symptoms may last for several days, weeks or months, and there is a small chance these changes may be permanent.
  • Possible decreased function of facial expression muscles, which is usually temporary but may be permanent in rare cases (less than 1%.)
  • Scarring from external incisions (if they are required.)
  • Need for additional surgery to remove wires, plates or screws (less than 1% of cases.)
  • In cases where bone needs to be cut in between teeth, there is the possibility of damage to those teeth, requiring root canals or resulting in the loss of those teeth (less than 1% of cases.)
  • In upper jaw surgery, the sinus will be affected for several weeks post-surgery and further sinus surgery may be required to correct any continuing problems.
  • Post-operative infection, which may cause bone or tooth loss, requiring additional treatment for a long period of time (less than 1% of cases.)
  • Change in the position of the jaw joints, which may cause discomfort, bite change or difficulty chewing. If jaw joint problems existed before surgery, there is no guarantee they will improve, and in rare cases, symptoms could worsen after surgery.
  • Stretching of the corners of the mouth, which may result in discomfort, cracking and slow healing.
  • Inflammation of veins used for IV fluids and medications, resulting in pain, swelling, discolouration, and restriction of arm or hand movements for some time after surgery.
  • If teeth are wired together after surgery, oral hygiene will be diminished, which could result in gum disease. There is also concern about airway obstruction. As well, teeth will also feel slightly loose for some time after wiring. 

The majority of people who undergo jaw surgery do not have severe reactions or long-term health problems as a result. However, it is important to be informed of what could go wrong before you make the decision to undergo this surgery. Your surgeon will ask you to sign an informed consent form outlining the risks of the surgery to make sure you understand them. Be sure to ask your surgeon questions before the surgery so you can make an informed decision that you are comfortable with.