Objective: The primary objectives of this report were, first, to determine the number and incidence of complications of transsphenoidal surgery performed by a cross-section of neurosurgeons in the United States and, second, to ascertain the influence of the surgeon's experience with the procedure on the occurrence of these complications. The secondary objective was to review complications of transsphenoidal surgery from the standpoint of their causation, treatment, and prevention.
Methods: Questionnaires regarding 14 specific complications of transsphenoidal surgery were mailed to 3172 neurosurgeons. The data reported were analyzed from the 958 respondents (82%) who reported performing the operation. The neurosurgeons surveyed were asked to estimate the number of transsphenoidal operations performed, to identify any complications observed, and to estimate the percentage of operations that had resulted in any of the 14 specific complications. The 958 respondents were placed into three experience groups, based on the number of transsphenoidal operations performed. The data were analyzed by using chi 2 tests and Spearman correlation coefficients. The secondary objectives were met through a detailed review of the literature, in light of our experience.
Results: Of the respondents, 87.3% reported having performed < 200 operations and 9.7% reported 200 to 500 previous operations. The remaining 3% reported more than 500 previous operations. More extensive previous experience with transsphenoidal surgery was associated with a greater likelihood of having witnessed each specific complication. The mean operative mortality rate for all three groups was 0.9%. Anterior pituitary insufficiency (19.4%) and diabetes insipidus (17.8%) were complications with the highest incidence of occurrence. The overall incidence of cerebrospinal fluid fistulas was 3.9%. Other significant complications, such as carotid artery injuries, hypothalamic injuries, loss of vision, and meningitis, occurred with incidence rates between 1 and 2%. An inverse relationship was found between the experience group and the likelihood of complications, as indicated by significant negative Spearman correlation coefficients for all but 2 of the 14 complications listed in the survey (P < 0.05). Thus, increased experience with transsphenoidal surgery seems to be associated with a decreased percentage of operations resulting in complications. Some caution should be exercised in interpreting these data, because they are based on the respondents' estimates.
Conclusion: Transsphenoidal surgery seems to be a reasonably safe procedure, with a mortality rate of less than 1%. However, a significant number of complications do occur. The incidence of these complications seems to be higher, with statistical significance, in the hands of less experienced surgeons. The learning curve seems to be relatively shallow, because a statistically significantly decreased incidence of morbidity and death could be documented after 200 and even 500 transsphenoidal operations. Better understanding of the indications for transsphenoidal surgery and improved familiarity with the regional anatomy should further lower the incidence of death and morbidity resulting from this procedure in the hands of all neurosurgeons.