An Introduction to Electrosurgical Handpieces [FAQs]

Dr. William T. Bovie is credited with developing the first electrosurgical unit.

Though the Bovie® electrosurgical unit was unprecedented when it was first used nearly a century ago, today, over 80% of surgical procedures involve electrosurgical devices.

The device that typically comes to mind when someone says “electrosurgery” is the electrosurgical handpiece.

In this blog post, we’ll discuss the different types of electrosurgical handpieces and how they work.

Recommended: Read more about how ATL can help with your electrosurgical device.

What is an electrosurgical handpiece?

During an electrosurgical procedure, there are typically five pieces of equipment that make up the electrosurgical system: the generator, the cable, the electrode, the grounding pad/return electrode (when needed), and the handpiece.

The generator (sometimes called “the ESU” for “electrosurgical unit”) is the piece of capital equipment that provides power to the handpiece and the electrode.

The cable, with its accompanying interconnect components, connects the handpiece and the electrode to the generator.

The electrode is the piece of the device that actually comes into contact with the patient—it is the “tip” of the device.

The grounding pad/return electrode is used in certain situations to close the circuit and disperse energy.

As electrosurgery uses an alternating current, the circuit must be closed or the device will not work.

Finally, as the name implies, the electrosurgical handpiece is the device that the physician actually holds and manipulates while performing the surgery.

As there are many different types of electrodes that serve different functions, handpieces are typically designed to accept different tips—such as a scalpel, loop, or pair of forceps.


What is an electrosurgical pencil? What about an electrosurgical pen?

Electrosurgical handpieces are often shaped like writing and/or cutting utensils so that they have a natural feel.

For this reason, when people refer to “electrosurgical pencils” or “electrosurgical pens,” they are typically referring to the handpiece itself.

However, there are times when the terms “pencil” and “pen” are used to refer specifically to electrosurgical handpieces that have a surgical-needle electrode with a distinct point on the tip.


What is the difference between an electrosurgical knife and an electrosurgical scalpel?

When talking about electrosurgical devices, the phrases “knife” and “scalpel” typically refer to the type of electrode on the device.

As mentioned above, electrosurgical handpieces are often designed to accept many different types of electrodes (or tips).

The terms “electrosurgical knife” and “electrosurgical scalpel” are typically used in reference to “bladed” electrodes that have the shape of a knife’s edge on one (or both) sides.

It’s important to note, however, that just because an electrode isn’t shaped like a knife doesn’t mean it can’t cut through the skin or other tissue.

Loop electrodes (shaped like a cowboy’s lasso) are commonly used to smoothly remove tissue during laparoscopic surgeries.


What are some of the challenges with developing electrosurgical handpieces?

Though electrosurgery has existed for nearly a century, the functions behind electrosurgery are still not completely understood.

Similarly, though the electrosurgical handpiece has been in use for years, it is still being updated and innovated to produce better patient outcomes.

Due to the nature of RF energy (which is utilized by most modern electrosurgical devices), developing a device that can control and contain the energy is one challenge.

With demands for multifunctional devices on the rise, another challenge that electrosurgical device engineers face is adding suction and/or smoke clearing capabilities to their handpieces.

Creating a handpiece that can cut, coagulate, and clear smoke while also creating a cable assembly that will enable it to work properly with a generator can be an overwhelming task—even for a team of mechanical and electrical engineers.

For this reason, we recommend working with a partner who has experience bringing electrosurgical devices to mark.


Additional resources.

Electrosurgery has become a staple of modern medicine.

At the center of electrosurgical systems is the electrosurgical handpiece.

To learn more about what it takes to develop an energy-driven device, like an electrosurgical handpiece, download our free ebook.

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