For decades, hospitals have utilized Bair Hugger systems in surgery to prevent hypothermia. Hypothermia is a real concern during longer surgical procedures, since your body loses heat faster than it can produce it. Even mild hypothermia can lead to blood loss, infection, and prolonged hospital stays. The Bair Hugger system combats hypothermia by forcing warm air through an inflatable blanket, maintaining normothermia (normal human body temperature). Bair Hugger also faces legal controversy due to increased infection risks compared with other available patient warming systems. These infections can be especially detrimental for hip or knee replacement patients, leading to revision surgery, hospitalization, and limb amputations.
Bair Hugger Deep Joint Infections: How Do They Happen?
Deep joint infections are a known orthopedic surgery complication (up to 15% of hip and 25% of knee replacements). Because hip and knee replacement procedures leave deep joints exposed, infection risks grow higher over time. But with a Bair Hugger heating blanket forcing warm air across the patient’s exposed body, the risks become even greater. Although the blankets themselves are sterile, air forced through the operating room and around the patient’s body is easily contaminated. Medical professionals hypothesize that forced warm air circulating from beneath the surgical table can reach the patient’s exposed incision site. Patients getting a prosthetic hip or knee implant leave those deep joints open and therefore vulnerable to any airborne contaminants. Once that surgical site’s properly closed, treating subsequent deep joint infections becomes much more difficult.
MRSA Deep Joint Infections May Require Limb Amputation or Turn Deadly
Surgeons usually treat most common deep joint infections with intravenous antibiotic therapy. But more serious infections are also possible, including Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA). MRSA is caused by a bacterial staph variant that’s already resistant to most commonly prescribed antibiotics. MRSA infections (especially at the deep-joint level) can potentially be life-threatening, affecting the patient’s bloodstream, lungs, heart, bones, and joints.
Some invasive MRSA infection symptoms include:
- A high temperature (100.4F or above)
- Muscle aches and pains
- Pain, swelling, and tenderness in the affected body part(s)
If you have experience any symptoms listed above after undergoing orthopedic surgery, report them to your doctor or surgeon immediately. Untreated or misdiagnosed MRSA can lead to the following severe (even life-threatening) health complications:
- Blood poisoning (sepsis)
- Urinary tract infection (UTI)
- Endocarditis (infection of the heart valves)
- Septic bursitis (an inflamed, fluid-filled sac forms under the skin; for knee or hip replacement patients, it usually occurs near the prosthetic joint)
- Septic arthritis
- Osteomyelitis (a bone infection)
Approximately 10% of recurrent prosthetic joint infections eventually result in lower limb amputations, according to the American Journal of Orthopedics.
Bair Hugger Patient Warming System Alternatives
Experts agree that patient warming devices are essential for reducing hypothermia risks during longer, more complicated orthopedic surgery procedures. That said, Bair Hugger forced-air warming blankets aren’t your only available option. The alternative is a conductive warmer that delivers low-voltage electricity through a lightweight polymer fabric used in blankets and mattresses. (Two popular options include the HotDog and Koala conductive patient warming devices.) Both air-free and water-free, conductive warming is more sterile than Bair Hugger’s forced-air system and easily controlled by medical professionals.
Studies Show Bair Hugger Warming Device Dangers
Multiple studies have compared forced-air and conductive fabric patient warming systems for efficacy and safety reasons, including:
Study #1: “Forced-Air Warming and Ultra-Clean Ventilation Do Not Mix,” The Bone & Joint Journal
This 2001 study compared forced-air and conductive fabric warming devices used during similar surgical procedures. Researchers reviewed infection data to learn which bacteria could be associated with each device. The study found a “significant increase in deep joint infection… identified during a period when forced-air warming was used compared to a period when conductive fabric warming is used.” The study recommended conductive warming devices over forced-air methods, particularly for orthopedic surgery patients.
Study #2: “Patient Warming Excess Heat: The Effects on Orthopedic Operating Room Ventilation Performance,” Anesthesia & Analgesia
This 2013 study also compared various forced-air and conductive patient warming systems used in hospitals during orthopedic surgery. Researchers agree that patient warming plays an important role in surgery, but “these benefits may not fully translate to contamination-sensitive surgery (i.e., implants), because patient warming devices release excess heat that may disrupt the intended ceiling-to-floor ventilation airflows and expose the surgical site to added contamination.”
The study repeatedly mentions “contamination-sensitive surgery,” including hip and knee implant surgeries — especially since they involve an exposed deep joint. While forced-air warming systems may work well for other surgeries, orthopedic implant patients are far more susceptible to infection. For this reason, patients undergoing artificial knee or hip replacement should ask surgeons to use a conductive patient warming system.
Bair Hugger Inventor Warns About Increased Risk For Infections, Limb Amputations
In 2010, Dr. Scott Augustine, Bair Hugger’s inventor, said it was dangerous for patients receiving artificial hearts, valves and joints. Dr. Augustine told The New York Times forced-air warming can spread bacteria, which leads to hospital-acquired infections. These airborne infection risks include MRSA and other deep joint infections that could potentially require limb amputations. He also asserted conductive fabric is superior for warming surgery patients, since Bair Hugger redirects air circulation throughout operating rooms. The change in airflow, Dr. Augustine warned, could bring airborne contaminants in direct contact with open surgical incision sites.
Evidence from multiple clinical studies as well as Dr. Augustine’s testimony are now used as evidence in Bair Hugger lawsuits. Individuals who developed deep joint infections after orthopedic surgery using Bair Hugger therapy are suing device manufacturers 3M and Arizant. These plaintiffs now accuse Bair Hugger’s manufacturers of failing to warn healthcare providers about forced-air warming risks. Countless Bair Hugger surgery patients experienced extreme deep joint infections resulting in multiple revision surgeries, permanent disabilities, and even amputations. Lawyers allege 3M and Arizant knew about Bair Hugger’s potential dangers, yet tried to conceal or discredit scientific data demonstrating those risks.
What You Can Do
If you or a loved one experienced infections, amputations or other severe complications following Bair Hugger surgery, you may qualify for compensation. Complete your free Bair Hugger claim evaluation in just 30 seconds to see if you may have an eligible case. An experienced attorney in your area will contact you to discuss options for getting the justice and pay you deserve.
Mandy Voisin is a freelance writer, blogger, and author of Girls of the Ocean and Star of Deliverance. As an accomplished content marketing consultant, mom of four and doctor's wife, Mandy has written hundreds of articles about dangerous drugs and medical devices, medical issues that impact disabled Americans, veterans' healthcare and workers' compensation issues since 2016.