Turbinate Reduction Surgery: What You Need to Know

Published on: May 21, 2023
Woman during a consultation for turbinate reduction surgery.

The nasal passages have small bones called turbinates that help humidify, warm and filter the air you breathe. These bones can become inflamed and block the nasal passages, causing breathing disorders. Here is what you need to know about turbinate reduction and when surgery may be necessary.

What Causes Enlarged Turbinates?

The turbinates are located at the back of each nostril as it enters the nasal passages. These structures can become inflamed when you have a cold, allergies, sinus infections or exposure to air-borne irritants. While the inflammation normally subsides, some people may have chronic turbinate enlargement.

If you have ongoing exposure to conditions that cause turbinate swelling, they may stay enlarged. These swollen structures can make it difficult to breathe and may cause complications over time. If you have enlarged turbinates, you may experience the following symptoms:

  • Chronic nasal congestion
  • Snoring
  • Increased risk of sinus infections
  • Post-nasal drip
  • Sleep apnea or other breathing disorders

When swollen turbinates or hypertrophy occurs, it can impact your overall health. If you have nasal congestion that lasts for weeks or months, you should see your doctor or an ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist to determine if you have chronic turbinate inflammation or hypertrophy.

Enlarged Turbinate Treatment

In most cases, turbinate reduction surgery will not be the first option for treatment. There are less invasive procedures that are often successful at relieving turbinate inflammation. This can include steroid nasal sprays or antihistamines that relieve swelling and improve breathing.

When non-invasive treatments are not successful at reducing the size of turbinates and improving breathing, turbinate reduction surgery may be recommended. A few different surgical procedures may be recommended to correct your nasal blockages for improved breathing and health.

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Turbinate Reduction Surgery Options

Your ENT specialist can discuss the various types of turbinate reduction procedures available, and which may be best for you. The size and shape of your turbinates and nose may determine which surgery can offer the best outcome. Some of the current turbinate reduction surgery options include:

  • Controlled ablation (coblation). This method uses a device to deliver thermal energy to the turbinates. The heat is enough to shrink their size without damaging the surrounding tissue.
  • Cauterization. Another thermal method for turbinate reduction is cauterizing some of the blood vessels that serve the turbinates. This can shrink inflammation and swelling by cutting off some of the blood supply to the turbinates.
  • Radiofrequency (RF) ablation. Radiofrequency energy creates heat, which can be delivered directly to the turbinates. RF energy exposure can result in scar tissue formation and the shrinking of enlarged turbinates.
  • Resection surgery. Removing part of the turbinate through incisions may be recommended for turbinate reduction. A partial resection removes both bone and tissue, while a microdebrider submucosal resection only removes tissue from inside the turbinate but leaves the outer lining in place.

Most turbinate reduction surgeries can be performed as outpatient procedures. Depending on the surgery, it may be performed under local or general anesthesia. If other nasal issues exist like a deviated septum, they may also be corrected at the same time with septoplasty or other procedures.

Recovery from turbinate reduction surgery can vary from one day to a full week, depending on the procedure. Most in-office, minimally-invasive surgeries require very little recovery or downtime. Surgeries performed under general anesthesia typically have a longer recovery period.

Benefits of Turbinate Reduction Surgery

For those that have been plagued by chronic nasal congestion due to enlarged turbinates, surgery can provide long-term relief. Once the tissue heals, the turbinates can be greatly reduced in size. It can take up to six weeks for the complete results and benefits of turbinate reduction surgery to be realized.

Turbinate surgery is well-tolerated and usually performed as an in-office procedure. There are very few risks, but the outcome can have many advantages for patients with inflamed turbinates. Some of the benefits of undergoing a turbinate reduction procedure include:

  • Improved breathing
  • Reduced snoring
  • Eliminate or reduce sleep apnea symptoms
  • Less severe allergy symptoms
  • Fewer sinus infections

Complications with turbinate reduction surgeries are rare. Some of the possible side effects after surgery can include crusting inside the nose, nosebleeds and nasal dryness. Empty nose syndrome is a rare complication of turbinate reduction that can numb the sensation inside your nose.
ENT doctor examining man's nose and nostrils.
Chronic nasal congestion can be a sign of enlarged turbinates. If have been having severe allergy symptoms, post-nasal drip, nighttime breathing problems or sinus problems, you may want to find out if you have inflamed turbinates.

You do not need to live with the discomfort of chronically inflamed turbinates. There are treatments for turbinate reduction and surgical procedures to give you relief. To find out more about turbinate reduction options, contact your doctor or an ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist in your area.

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