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gorillapaws's avatar

What's the deal with Obsidian Scalpels?

Asked by gorillapaws (15824 points ) May 14th, 2008

Ok so I work for a surgeon, and I had heard that there are modern day surgeons using obsidian scalpels because they are much sharper and therefore produce a cleaner incision that results in less scaring. We’ve started doing procedures on varicose veins and reducing scars in these cases is obviously a good thing. So I tried looking up if obsidian scalpels are approved by the FDA for use on people and if so where to buy them. I hear all kinds of anecdotal examples of various surgeons using them, but I can’t find out where to buy them and if they are allowed by the FDA.

I found the ones at finescience.com, but they said that their products are not designed for use on humans, but for animals and research only. I also called the FDA’s division of medical devices and the lady was very nice, but she couldn’t tell me one way or the other without a manufacturer. I’m running out of ideas here and was hoping the “collective” could give me a hand by steering me in the right direction.

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8 Answers

shilolo's avatar

An interesting question. I am not a surgeon, but I do practice medicine, and I have never heard of this. Also, when I was in medical school, I never saw a single surgeon use or discuss them. That said, I did find a few examples on the web. Perhaps they haven’t gained much traction because the few studies that have compared their use to stainless steel show no difference between obsidian and steel scalpels in terms of wound healing. I think your research shows (correctly) that they are not approved for human use, probably because sharp as they are, obsidian knives tend to be brittle (I really love that I linked to a sword discussion board), and no one wants broken shards of glass in a wound.

gorillapaws's avatar

@shilolo, thank for the response. I ended up e-mailing Dr. Green and he wrote me back. He told me that there weren’t any FDA approved obsidian scalpels on the market to his knowledge and that he uses them at his own risk. As far as the no difference article, I don’t think that the study has shown that there is no difference. All it says is that neither scalpel left a scar at the end, which would be an inconclusive result (it would be like having two bridges one made of wood and the other made of steel and putting 1 pound on each. When neither bridge collapses, you can’t say that there is no difference in the structural stability of wood and steel). I have a feeling that if incisions were made that would typically leave a permanent scar, then there would likely be an appreciable difference. Dr. Green stated in his e-mail that there was an appreciable difference from his experience.

The reason for the lack of approval/commercial interest and development is for the reason you stated: that the blades lack lateral stability and are prone to shattering if used incorrectly. Still, I would think that the blades can be used safely if the surgeon is aware of the limitations. Don’t you think the surgeon and the patient should be allowed to make informed decisions regarding the risks and possible benefits of any particular treatment or technique?

Memestream's avatar

I realize that this is an old question, but just in case anyone else ever looks at this:

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8415970

“There are several anecdotal clinical articles claiming wound healing and scar superiority using obsidian (volcanic glass) scalpels. In order to determine if skin incisions made with obsidian were superior to those made with standard surgical steel, wound tensile strength, scar width, and histology were assessed in 40 adult male Sprague-Dawley rats. Each rat received two parallel 8-cm dorsal skin incisions, one with an obsidian scalpel and the other with a surgical steel scalpel (no. 15 blade). Data were analyzed by ANOVA. Tensile strength of the two wound types was not different at 7, 14, 21, and 42 days. Scar width, however, was significantly less in the obsidian wounds at 7, 10, and 14 days (p < 0.005). At 21 days, scar width was not different in the two groups. At 42 days, all wounds were barely detectable, thus precluding scar width analysis. A blinded histologic review suggested that obsidian wounds contained fewer inflammatory cells and less granulation tissue at 7 days.”

shilolo's avatar

@Memestream. Welcome to Fluther. The article you quote from is the exact same I linked above. The authors try to put a positive spin on it, but, in essence there was no difference at 21 and 42 days after the incisions between the two groups of rate.

Blademan's avatar

Hello, Believe it or not, I’m one of those elusive guys that makes obsidian scalpels and would like to say a few words about them. Firstly, I’ve been making them for a number of years now and can tell you that they ARE all they’re cracked up to be and more…no kidding they’re sharp…ultra-sharp. I make them to order, so each lot is a customized job for each customer and all made to the customer’s specifications. Each and every one of them is handmade using a technique called “pressure flaking” and I go to extremes to protect that edge as the blade is detatched from the core. As you can probably well imagine, I do not, nor will I ever mass produce them…it’s a matter of quality over quantity.

Now about the blades. Like I said they’re ultra-sharp and I’ll put them up against anything on the market. Coupled with that, they’re exceptionally delicate and have to be handled with care. They will not tolerate lateral pressure, but when used properly will perform flawlessly. They should only be used on soft tissue…period.

Since I work with this material, I have been cut from time to time and by all rights ought to look like I’ve been sorting out a bobcat fight, but that’s not at all the case. I can safely say that every cut I ever suffered from an obsidian blade healed without any scaring whatsoever. It sounds amazing, but the cuts are so clean that’s the way they heal.

For whatever reason, these blades aren’t approved by the FDA and this baffles the daylights out of me too. Nevertheless they are being used with great success (albeit in limited numbers and only by a handful of surgeons and researchers).

radicaledward765's avatar

I realize this was posted almost a year ago, but I would like to add my two cents to the topic. As Blademan stated, obsidian scalpels are far superior to the modern steel scalpel. If you look into the thoracic procedures of a man named Don Crabtree from the 1970s, you just might be surprised. He knapped his own obsidian blades for the surgery.

Additionally, anthropologist/archaeologist Payson D. Sheets conducted a study on the sharpness difference between several different blades. Depending on the edge being analyzed, he found that the obsidian was 210 to 1050 times sharper than the steel surgical scalpel. They also examined cuts made by the different blades under the microscope and the steel scalpel actually tore the flesh and created a ragged edge, whereas the obsidian blade was much cleaner and crisper.

They’re not in widespread use because they cannot be mass manufactured. Each blade has to be hand-made by a professional. This is probably why some of you have never heard of them being used before.

robmandu's avatar

Kinda related:

Handcrafted Japanese kitchen knives are apparently pretty bad-ass, too.

AncientTechnology's avatar

Obsidian has been used in cardiac surgery, as well-crafted obsidian blades have a cutting edge many times sharper than high-quality steel surgical scalpels, with the edge of the blade being only about 3 nanometres wide.
Even the sharpest metal knife has a jagged, irregular blade when viewed under a strong enough microscope. When examined under an electron microscope an obsidian blade is still smooth and even.

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