Stitches play an important role in patient care and recovery. Used to close wounds and surgical incisions, stitches provide support to tissue or muscle and assist with healing. While some stitches need to be removed by a doctor a few weeks after a procedure, other stitches get absorbed by the body over time.
Medically referred to as sutures, there are two main types of stitches used in modern medicine: dissolvable and non-dissolvable. While their function is the same, dissolvable sutures are typically used inside the body, while non-dissolvable sutures are most often used on the skin.
How long does it take for stitches to dissolve and why are they used in the first place? If you’re scheduled to have a procedure, it can be helpful to know what to expect. Read on to learn about dissolvable stitches and how their use can speed up recovery.
Stitches vs. Sutures: What’s the Difference?
In the medical world, there is a slight difference in meaning between sutures and stitches. Sutures are the actual thread or material that closes a wound, whereas the term stitches refers to the medical procedure of closing a wound. We’ll use them interchangeably in this article.
What Are Dissolvable Stitches?
As the name suggests, dissolvable stitches are sutures that dissolve rather than needing to be removed. Sometimes called absorbable stitches, they can be used internally or externally and are broken down by the body’s immune system over time. The wound should be completely healed by the time that these stitches have been absorbed by the body.
What Are They Made Of?
To avoid infection, all sutures are sterile before use. Dissolvable stitches are made from either natural or synthetic materials and are composed of either a single strand (monofilament) or multiple strands (multi-filament).
Often known as ‘catgut’, natural dissolvable stitches are made from purified collagen taken from the intestine of a cow or sheep. Although this type of suture has been used for decades, some doctors have phased out catgut in favor of more reliable synthetic sutures.
Catgut is still common for oral surgeries and it’s also frequently used by veterinarians.
There are three main types of synthetic absorbable sutures:
- Polyglycolide acid (PGA): Introduced in the early 1970s, PGA sutures were the first widely used synthetic dissolvable stitches. Made from glycolic acid, their braided, multi-filament structure ensures secure knots that remain in place through the most critical time of healing.
- Polydioxanone (PDO): Made from polyester, this monofilament suture is best used on internal soft tissue when support is needed for at least six weeks. PDO sutures are often used in pediatrics when tissue growth is ongoing.
- Polyglycolide-co-caprolactone (PGCL): This synthetic multi-filament suture is best used in soft tissue repair and to abate bleeding. While it’s unlikely to cause excessive inflammation, PGCL is generally not recommended for cardiovascular or neurovascular procedures or with elderly patients.
How Long Does It Take for Stitches to Dissolve?
There are various factors that affect the amount of time it takes for stitches to dissolve, including:
- The size of the sutures: Small sutures will typically dissolve faster than larger ones.
- The composition of the suture: As each type of dissolvable suture has a different strength, they degrade at different rates. Some sutures are made to break down quickly, while others will be required to remain intact for several months.
- Type and size of the incision: Much like the size of the sutures, larger wounds will need more stitches which will often take longer to be absorbed by the body.
- Location of the stitches: Internal dissolvable stitches are affected by the body’s chemical make-up far more than those on the surface of the skin.
While there’s no definitive answer to how long it takes for stitches to dissolve, the timeframe ranges from a few days up to six months. If you’re due to have a procedure and want to know exactly when your stitches will dissolve, ask your doctor about the type of stitches being used.
What Are They Used For?
Although a doctor’s preference often determines the type of suture used, the type of wound and risk of scarring also play a large role. As dissolvable stitches may result in scar tissue, doctors may be reluctant to use this type of suture for certain procedures such as facial surgery. In other cases, the resulting scar tissue is actually a benefit and can help a patient heal more quickly.
Some examples of when dissolvable stitches are used include the following medical procedures.
Oral surgeons use dissolvable stitches after tooth extractions and to close surgical incisions. As these break down on their own, they remove the need for a follow-up visit, which reduces the risk of additional injury during suture removal.
Sutures used in oral surgeries are generally designed to dissolve within a few weeks.
Tonsillectomy and Adenoidectomy
Enlarged tonsils and adenoids can make it difficult to breathe and swallow. If they become infected, many doctors prefer to remove them rather than risk further complications.
After cutting out the tonsils and adenoids, the doctor needs to seal the exposed blood vessels. Dissolvable stitches are usually the suture of choice because they’re perfectly suited to this surgery. These sutures close the incision and they help promote a speedy recovery, as they normally dissolve within three weeks.
Studies have shown that the use of sutures over staples for closing a C-section incision after delivery results in a 57% decrease in the risk of complications. Absorbable sutures were also found to reduce the likelihood of wound infection and skin separation. For this reason, absorbable sutures are typically used for cesarean section deliveries.
Are Dissolvable Stitches Right for Me?
Dissolvable stitches have been used for many decades in a variety of medical procedures. They have many advantages, but in certain circumstances it’s best to leave the decision about suture type to your doctor.
How long does it take for stitches to dissolve? It all depends on the type used and the size of the wound being treated. Speak to your doctor before any procedure and ask how long your sutures will take to dissolve. Your doctor will also be able to advise you on wound care and they can tell you whether you will need to book a follow-up appointment.