Most people know about the septum and sinuses when it comes to breathing, but not many people (even most doctors) know about the nasal turbinates. Turbinates are like wings along the sidewalls of your nasal cavity, opposite your midline nasal septum. There are three paired structures: the inferior, middle and superior turbinates. Your sinus passageways drain from underneath the middle turbinates. Swollen turbinates are probably responsible for most cases of nasal congestion.
The turbinates are bony on the inside and surrounded by a mucous membrane covering, with a very rich vascular tissue in between. The vascular tissue can engorge significantly, like what occurs with the penis. Any degree of inflammation, irritation or infection can aggravate turbinate swelling. Allergies are a common cause. Even weather changes such as temperature, pressure or humidity fluctuations can aggravate turbinate swelling. In many instances patients are told by their medical doctors that they have nasal polyps, when in fact, it’s a very enlarged turbinate that’s seen.
Sometimes it’s difficult to tell whether a swollen structure is a turbinate or a polyp. A polyp is a protuberance of mucous membrane that grows beyond the normal tissue boundaries. Most nasal polyps originate from underneath the middle turbinates where the sinuses drain, but polyps can also occur anywhere in the nose, including on the turbinates.
One important feature of the turbinates that not too many people know about is what’s called the nasal cycle. The turbinates alternate in size from side to side every few hours. One side shrinks and the other side swells. Normally you won’t notice this, unless both your turbinates are somewhat congested. If you have a deviated septum, then you’ll notice this more.
Gravity also affects the size of your nasal turbinates. When you lay down, blood pools in the vessels, leading to slight engorgement. However, your involuntary nervous system detects this relative change and automatically constricts your blood vessels to improve breathing. The same process occurs when you exercise—due to activation of the sympathetic nervous system, the turbinates shrink, opening up your breathing passageways.
Sometimes, the balance between the two halves of the involuntary nervous system(the sympathetic and parasympathetic parts) is out of alignment, and this automatic mechanism doesn’t work properly. So when you lay down or exercise, the vessels don’t constrict fully. Other times, the turbinates become extra sensitive to allergies, weather changes, chemicals, scents or odors. Once it’s irritated, an inflammatory reaction occurs which leads to engorgement and production of mucous. This is called vasomotor or nonallergic rhinitis. Throat acid reflux has been shown to be associated with this condition.
Ultimately, how well you breathe through your nose is determined by a combination of the size of your turbinates, your septal geometry, and the how flimsy your nostrils are. (See the other sections on the septum and flimsy nostrils.) Your nose is not just a passive tube that acts a channel for air to pass into the lungs—it’s a very dynamic structure, able to change minute by minute.
What You Must Know About Turbinate Surgery
If you’ve tried all the conservative options for treating your allergies or nasal congestion, and surgery is the only option left, there are a few very important facts that you must know before undergoing any type of turbinate surgery. Decades ago, surgeons use to remove significant amounts or completely the lower nasal turbinates. Initially, patients would breathe much better, but years later would complain of either a dry nose or a constantly runny nose and even a return of nasal congestion. Paradoxically, when you look into these patient’s noses, the nasal cavity would be wide open. The is called the empty nose syndrome (ENS).
We now know that turbinates are a vital part of your nasal anatomy and functioning, and you need a certain amount of nasal resistance to perceive and benefit from proper breathing.
There are a variety of options for shrinking nasal turbinates, from more conservative to more aggressive. The simplest procedure that can be performed in the office is an intramural cautery procedure. This is where a needle or a probe is placed underneath the mucous membranes and the blood vessels are either cauterized or vaporized. With time, the scar tissue that’s created shrinks and tightens the turbinate soft tissues. You’ll see various names such as radio-frequency or Somnoplasty. One recent variation called Coblation uses radiofrequency energy to vaporize tissues at relatively low temperatures. All these procedures have the advantage that they can be performed in the office, and no cutting or excising of the mucous membrane is involved.
The remaining procedures are usually performed in the operating room, under local or general anesthesia. There are many ways that surgeons modify, shrink, de-bulk, or excise parts of the turbinate. The previously mentioned in-office procedures can be performed along with any other procedures, such as a septoplasty or sinus surgery. The simplest way is to physically cut the front-lower portion of the turbinate off using scissors or electrocautery. Sometimes the deep bony parts are removed as well. Complete inferior turbinate resections are rarely performed anymore due to the possible risk of the “empty nose syndrome.”
Another popular method is called a sub-mucous resection (meaning the any deep bone, cartilage or tissue is removed, leaving behind the overlying mucous membrane). For the turbinates, an incision is made lengthwise along the lower portion of the inferior turbinate, and the bone is exposed and a portion removed.
The mucous membrane layers are replaced and pressed down onto the raw bony bed with soft nasal packing. A more recent way of doing this without making an incision is to use what’s called a suction microdebrider. This device has been used for years in sinus surgery. The tip of a long thin rod with an open end has a rotating blade which oscillates back and forth, while simultaneously applying a vacuum to suction out whatever tissues is removed (either soft tissue or bone).
What To Expect After Surgery
Most surgeons still use nasal packing, especially with the more aggressive procedures, to keep the mucous membrane layer pressed against the raw surfaces. Since turbinate procedures are usually performed alongside septal procedures, nasal packing with or without splints are more common than not. Depending on surgeon preference, packing may or may not be used for some of the minimally invasive procedures.
Turbinate procedures by themselves are not considered painful. Most patients don’t take any pain medications, unless other procedures are performed simultaneously.
It may take anywhere from days to weeks before your breathing improves significantly, since there will be swelling, blood and mucous immediately after the procedure. Many surgeons clean out this debris a few days to a week after the procedure in the office during follow-up.
Nasal saline can be applied every few hours just after the surgery to loosen the secretions. Blowing your nose is discouraged until you get the go ahead from your surgeon during the first post-op visit.
Turbinate surgery is a very useful procedure that can be done alone or in combination with other procedures. Bleeding and infection, although rare, can occur, just like any other surgical procedure. There can be anesthesia risks as well. In the rare chance that the procedure fails, reasons for failure include too conservative of a procedure, persistent nasal septal deviation, or nasal valve collapse.