Robotic Nerve-Sparing Radical Prostatectomy

For patients with clinically localized prostate cancer, nerve-sparing robotic prostatectomy provides patients with a safe and minimally invasive technique for removal of the prostate gland, while preserving as much of the surrounding nerve structures responsible for penile erections.

This minimally invasive approach has the advantage of smaller incisions, reduced pain, blood loss, transfusion rates and hospital stay, as compared to conventional open surgery with a similar cure rate. In select patients with locally invasive or metastatic cancer, morbid obesity, bleeding tendencies, or severe heart or lung problems, robotic prostatectomy may not be advised.

Our Surgeons

picture of doctor o'malley in his white doctors coat. he has on a white shirt with small blue plaid squares and a multi striped pink and light blue tie. he has dark brown hair. The background of the photo is medium blue.

Padraic G. O’Malley, MD
Associate Professor
Chief, Division of Urologic Oncology
Department of Urology

Click here for Video Biography

doctor su is wearing a white shirt with a dark blue and black striped tie with his white doctors coat. he is wearing clear framed glasses. he has dark hair. the background of the photo is medium blue.

Li-Ming Su, MD, FRCS(Glasg)
David A. Cofrin Endowed Chair of Urologic Oncology
Chairman, Department of Urology
Click here for Video Biography

The Surgery

Robotic prostatectomy requires that the patient undergoes a general anesthesia. While operative time varies from one individual to another, the average operating time is approximately 3-4 hours.

During robotic prostatectomy approximately 6 small keyhole (< 1cm) incisions are made in the abdomen (Figure 1), through which portals, or trocars, are placed to allow passage of instrumentation into the abdomen.

a medical simmulation mannequin showing 6 Robot Assisted Laprascopic Prostatectomy trocars in the abdomen area

Figure 1. Trocar configuration for nerve-sparing robotic prostatectomy.

The abdomen is filled with carbon dioxide gas to create a larger working space for the surgeon to accomplish the operation. This gas is later evacuated from the abdomen at the conclusion of the operation. The surgeon controls 3 multi-jointed robotic instruments to accomplish the tasks of dissection, cauterization, cutting and suturing with the same dexterity as the human wrist (Figure 2).

doctor su in an operating room. Operating equipment is in the background of the photo.  he is wearing scrubs, and scrub cap.  He is holding a robotic prostatectomy clip.  he is wearing clear framed glasses.

Figure 2. Multi-jointed robotic instruments allow the surgeon to operate within the body with the same facility as tiny human hands.

In addition, the surgeon controls a stereoscopic lens connected to a high definition camera which provides a three-dimensional, high definition view of the internal anatomy. A highly skilled surgical assistant stands at the operating table assisting the surgeon by exposing and retracting tissue using instrumentation inserted through two of the trocars.

The da Vinci S Surgical Robotic System is assembled to the trocars prior to commencing the operation.  With the operating surgeon seated a few feet away at the surgeon operating console, the robotic instrumentation is controlled by the surgeon in real time with highly precise motion scaling (Figure 3).

a drawing of a prostate cancer operating room.  it shows the patient on the operating table.  it has around the patient the scrub table, a video monitor, the scrub nurse, the surgeon console, the video monitor, the assistant, anesthesiologist and the elctrocautery unit
a color picture version of prostate cancer operating room.  it shows the surgeon sitting at the console, the scrub nurse and assistant standing by the operating table.  they are all wearing scrubs and scrub hats.

Figure 3. Schematic view of the operating room configuration for nerve-sparing robotic prostatectomy, actual operating room set up.

a black and white drawing of a seminal vesicle, neurovascular bundle, prostate, bladder, pubis and vas deferens

Figure 4. The prostate gland, seminal vesicles and vas deferens are then dissected and exposed.

Schematic diagram showing a side view of the anatomic relationship between the bladder, prostate, neurovascular bundle, pubic bone, rectum and vas deferens. The prostate is detached from the bladder and urethra, preserving the surrounding delicate cavernous nerve tissues when indicated in efforts to preserve the patient’s ability to achieve spontaneous erections following recovery from surgery (Figure 5).

a color picture of the prostate, neurovascular bundle, prostativc fascia and levator fascia.  a robotic tool in being used near the prostate

Figure 5. Artist depiction of the approximate location of the neurovascular bundle on the surface of the prostate gland from a top view of the prostate gland.

Pelvic lymph nodes that may be involved by cancer are removed when indicated to better stage the extent of tumor involvement. Lastly the bladder is sewn back to the urethra to restore continuity of the urinary tract.  Thermal energy is minimized during dissection of the prostate so as to avoid injury to the delicate nerve fibers and muscles involved in penile erections and urinary control. Once the prostate and lymph nodes are removed, they are immediately placed within a plastic sack which is later removed intact at the end of the operation through an extension of one of the existing abdominal incision sites. A small drain is left at the end of the procedure exiting one of the keyhole incisions along with a urethral catheter (called foley), which is used to bridge the connection created between the bladder and urethra (called the anastomosis). Finally the specimens are removed from the abdomen through the plastic entrapment sack and the skin incisions closed using plastic surgery techniques to minimize scarring. Abdominal incisions at one month following surgery are generally barely visible.

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The following is a slide show of a series of schematic drawings to help patients better understand the steps involved with nerve-sparing robotic prostatectomy.

Full Procedural Video

Click to Individual Steps Below

  1. Operating Room Setup
  2. Vas and Seminal Vesicle Dissection
  3. Posterior Dissection of Prostate
  4. Entering Retropubic Space
  5. Endopelvic Fascia and Puboprostatics
  6. Dorsal Venous Complex Ligation
  7. Anterior Bladder Neck Transection
  8. Posterior Bladder Neck Transection
  9. Bladder Neck Transection (Anterior Approach)
  10. Neurovascular Bundle Dissection
  11. Division of Dorsal Venous Complex and Apical Dissection
  12. Pelvic Lymph Node Dissection
  13. Entrapment of Prostate and Lymph Nodes
  14. Posterior Reconstruction
  15. Vesicourethral Anastomosis
  16. Extraction of Specimen

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Continence Outcomes

Although most patients experience some degree of urinary leakage (i.e. incontinence) following robotic prostatectomy, most patients quickly regain control by 3-6 months following surgery. (Figure revised from: Willis DL, Gonzalgo ML, Brotzman M, Feng Z, Trock B and Su LM. Comparison of outcomes between pure laparoscopic vs robot-assisted laparoscopic radical prostatectomy: a study of comparative effectiveness based upon validated quality of life outcomes. Br J Urol Int 109: 898-905, 2012).

chart with the label continence outcomes horizontally across the top.  %0-1 Security pad per day vertically on the left of the chart.  the vertical numbers on the left of the chart are 0, 20, 40, 60, 80 and 100.  the horizontal numbers across the bottom are 3, 6 and 12.  this depicts the months after surgery.  a blue vertical column rises from the horizontal number 3 (months after surgery)  the value stretches to 76, which is shown on the chart between 60 and 80.  this depicts the percentage of security pads used per day.  the second blue column stretches from the number 6 (months after surgery) to 87.  The third column is 12 (months after surgery) and rises to 93.

Potency Outcomes

Return of sexual function following nerve-sparing robotic prostatectomy is more challenging to define and assess as results depend on multiple factors including patient age, preoperative sexual function, percent of nerves spared during surgery, recovery time after surgery and presence of pre-existing medical conditions such as hypertension, heart disease, diabetes, obesity, smoking and high cholesterol. Based upon validated quality of life surveys and of patients who were fully potent preoperatively who underwent bilateral nerve preservation, 50%, 73% and 88% of patients reported successful intercourse with or without the use of phosphodiesterase 5 inhibitors (i.e. Viagra, Cialis, Levitra) at 3, 6, and 12 months postoperatively. (Figure revised from: Willis DL, Gonzalgo ML, Brotzman M, Feng Z, Trock B and Su LM. Comparison of outcomes between purle laparoscopic vs robot-assisted laparoscopic radical prostatectomy: a study of comparative effectiveness based upon validated quality of life outcomes. Br J Urol Int 109: 898-905, 2012).

chart entitled potency outcomes.  the vertical title to the left is percentage successful intercourse with the values of 0, 10, 20, 30, 40, 50, 60, 70, 80, 90, 100. the horizontal title is months after surgery with the values of 3, 6 and 12.  the column depicting 3 months after surgery is orange and shows the numeric value of 50, which is the percentage of successful intercourse after 3 months of surgery.   the second column depicting 6 months after surgery is orange and shows the numeric value of 73, which is the percentage of successful intercourse after 6 months of surgery.  the third column depicting 12 months after surgery is orange and shows the numeric value of 88, which is the percentage of successful intercourse after 12 months of surgery.

Potential Risks and Complications

As with any major surgery, complications, although rare, may occur with robotic prostatectomy. Potential risks and complications with this operation include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Bleeding: Blood loss during this procedure is typically less than 100 cc with the rare need for a blood transfusion (<2% of patients).
  • Infection: With the use of intravenous antibiotics, the risk of skin infections is extremely rare. However, if you develop any signs or symptoms of infection after the surgery (fever, drainage from or redness around your incisions, urinary frequency/discomfort, and/or pain) please contact us immediately.
  • Incisional Hernia: Because of the small laparoscopic incisions, hernias at these sites occur rarely. In addition, larger incisions are closed carefully prior to the completion of your surgery to minimize the risk of hernias.
  • Adjacent Organ Injury: As robotic prostatectomy is performed under continuous visualization, the risk of inadvertent injury to adjacent organs is uncommon. Nevertheless, the colon, small intestines, bladder, urethra, blood vessels and nerves are all in close proximity to the prostate.  Transient nerve and muscle injury to the extremities can rarely occur as a result of patient positioning.
  • Conversion to Conventional Laparoscopic or Open Surgery: In the rare event of complications or due to difficulty in dissecting by means of robotic surgery, conversion to conventional laparoscopy or open surgery is sometimes required (<1% of patients). This could result in a larger standard open incision and possibly a longer recuperation period.
  • Urinary Incontinence: Although most, if not all, men will suffer from temporary stress urinary incontinence following any form of prostatectomy surgery including robotic prostatectomy, this improves with time over the course of months following your surgery. You will be instructed during your first postoperative visit on the importance of performing Kegel exercises as well as be given the opportunity to participate in pelvic floor rehabilitation training to strengthen the pelvic floor muscles integral in the recovery of urinary control.
  • Erectile Dysfunction: As with open prostatectomy surgery, erectile dysfunction can often be a more significant and longer lasting side effect as compared to urinary incontinence despite a nerve-sparing procedure. The return of erectile function following prostatectomy is multifactorial and is dependent on factors including the age of the patient, degree of preoperative sexual function, technical precision of the nerve-sparing technique, and time.  These microscopic and delicate cavernous nerve fibers responsible for spontaneous erections may take up to 12-18 months to recover. You will be instructed during your first postoperative visit on various treatment options including medications (e.g. Viagra, Cialis, Levitra) as well as the use of a vacuum erection device or penile injections as part of the penile rehabilitation program that we offer. These therapies are often used to maintain the blood supply to the penile tissues while awaiting the recovery of cavernous nerve function.
  • Urethrovesical Anastomotic Leakage:  On rare occasions, a small leak at the urethrovesical connection may be detected that may require a longer duration of catheter drainage. These anastomotic leaks almost always resolve spontaneously with no further surgical intervention.
  • Pelvic Lymphatic Collection: In patients who undergo a pelvic lymph node dissection, lymphatic fluid can rarely collect as a result of the dissection requiring that a temporary drain be placed to evacuate the fluid and prevent infection

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What to Expect After Surgery

After a period of recovery in the Recovery Room, you will be transported to your hospital room once you are aware and your vital signs are stable.

  • Postoperative Pain: Although most patients in the first few days after surgery experience mild pain at their incision sites, this is generally well controlled by use of intravenous pain medication, a patient-controlled anesthesia pump, or oral pain medication provided by your nurse. You may experience some minor transient shoulder pain (1-2 days) related to the carbon dioxide gas used to inflate your abdomen during the robotic surgery.
  • Nausea: Nausea can occur following any surgery, especially those procedures that require general anesthesia. This is usually transient and controlled by medication which can be administered on an as-needed basis by your nurse.
  • Urinary Catheter: A urinary catheter (also called foley catheter) is placed to drain your bladder at the time of surgery while you are asleep. This is in efforts to monitor your urine output following surgery. Upon awakening from anesthesia, patients often notice an urge to urinate as a result of the catheter. This sensation often resolves with time. It is not uncommon to have blood-tinged urine for a few days after your surgery while your catheter is in place.
  • Bladder Spasms: Frequently after prostate or bladder surgery, the bladder becomes irritated and undergoes frequent contractions called bladder spasms. This can be felt as intermittent sharp shooting pain or spasms in the lower abdomen. Often with time alone these spasms will resolve. On occasion an antispasmodic can be provided if severe spasms are experienced.
  • Pelvic Drain: In patients who undergo a pelvic lymph node dissection, a small clear tube called a Jackson Pratt or JP pelvic drain will be placed during surgery exiting out of the side of your pelvis. The drain output often will appear blood tinged. The drain primarily serves to identify any excessive bleeding, lymphatic leak or a urine leak from the anastomosis. The drain remains in place for one week after surgery to be later removed in the clinic at your first postoperative visit.
  • Diet: Your diet will be advanced slowly following surgery from liquids to solids as tolerated. It is often the case that your appetite will be poor for up to a week following surgery. In addition, your intestinal function is often sluggish due to the effects of surgery and general anesthesia. It is for these two reasons that we recommend taking only small amounts of liquids by mouth at any one time until you begin to pass flatus and your appetite returns. In the meantime, your intravenous catheter will provide the necessary hydration to your body as your oral intake improves.
  • Constipation/Gas Cramps: You may experience sluggish bowels for several days following surgery as a result of the anesthesia. Suppositories and stool softeners are usually given to help with this problem. Taking a teaspoon of mineral oil daily at home will also help to prevent constipation. Narcotic pain medication can also cause constipation and therefore patients are encouraged to discontinue any narcotic pain medication as soon after surgery as tolerated.
  • Fatigue: Fatigue is quite common following surgery and should subside in a few weeks following surgery.
  • Incentive Spirometry: You will be expected to do some very simple breathing exercises to help prevent respiratory infections through use of an incentive spirometry device (these exercises will be explained to you by the nursing staff during your hospital stay). Coughing and deep breathing is an important part of your recuperation and helps prevent pneumonia and other pulmonary complications.
  • Ambulation: On the evening of surgery it is very important to get out of bed and begin walking with the supervision of your nurse or family member to help prevent blood clots from forming in your legs. You can also expect to have SCD’s (sequential compression devices) wrapped around your lower legs and calf area to prevent blood clots called deep vein thrombosis from forming in your legs. In the days that follow surgery, patients are advised to walk at least 6 separate times a day in the hallways. This serves to further reduce the chance of deep vein thrombosis and speed the return of bowel function.
  • Hospital Stay: The length of hospital stay following robotic prostatectomy is generally 1 day, however, certain situations may require a longer hospital stay.

What to Expect After Discharge from the Hospital

  • Pain Control:  For the majority of patients, one to two days of oral narcotic pain medication may be necessary after which Extra Strength Tylenol is usually sufficient to manage their pain.  Again, narcotics should be minimized to avoid constipation and oversedation.
  • Showering:  Patients can shower immediately upon discharge from the hospital, allowing their incisions to get wet. Once out of the shower, pad your incision sites dry and avoid any heavy creams or lotions. Tub baths or hot tubs in the first 2 weeks are discouraged as this will allow for prolonged soaking of your incisions and increase the risk of infection. The sutures underneath the skin will dissolve in 4-6 weeks.
  • Activity:  Walking 6 times a day for the first two weeks after surgery on a level surface is strongly encouraged as prolonged sitting or lying can increase your risk of pneumonia and deep vein thrombosis. It is permissible to climb stairs. No heavy lifting or exertion for up to 4 weeks following surgery.  Patients may begin driving once they are off of narcotic pain medication and have full range of motion at their waist. Most patients can return to full activity including work on an average of 3-4 weeks after surgery.
  • Diet:  Patients may resume a regular diet once they begin to pass flatus and their appetite improves.
  • Follow-up Appointment:  Patients are routinely scheduled for a follow-up appointment in the urology clinic for removal of the urethral catheter at approximately one week following surgery. To verify your appointment date and time please call UF & Shands Medical Plaza Urology Clinic at 352.265.8240.
  • Pathology Results: The pathology results from your surgery are usually available in one week following surgery and will be discussed with you at your first postoperative appointment. A copy of your pathology report will be provided to you at this time. You are also welcome to request a copy of your pathology report through the Medical Records Department at 352.265.0131.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

What type of patients are candidates for robotic prostatectomy?

  • Robotic laparoscopic prostatectomy is used to treat patients who have clinically localized prostate cancer. Most patients who are candidates for open radical prostatectomy are also excellent candidates for the robotic approach. In many centers, including the University of Florida, the robotic approached is the treatment of choice for the surgical management of clinically localized prostate cancer.

What patients are not considered good candidates for the robotic technique?

  • Patients with a history of extensive abdominal surgery, radiation, pre-existing heart or lung disease, morbid obesity, or bleeding tendencies may not be the best candidates for robotic prostatectomy. Patients with known metastatic or recurrent prostate cancer are not candidates for robotic prostatectomy. Although patients with very large prostate glands (e.g. > 100 grams) can undergo robotic prostatectomy, operative times are generally longer than in patients with smaller prostate gland sizes.

What are some of the benefits of robotic prostatectomy?

  • Small incisions and less scarring
  • Less blood loss (< 100-200 mL) and rarely the need for blood transfusions (<1-2%)
  • Short hospital stay (1 day for most patients)
  • Less postoperative pain and usually minimal need for pain medication
  • Short recovery time and quick return to normal activity (two to three weeks) and work (three to four weeks)

What is the advantage of robotic over open prostatectomy surgery?

The primary advantages of robotic prostatectomy are a result of the high tech equipment used to accomplish this surgery.

  • First, there is improved visualization with 10-12 X magnification and a high definition view of the internal anatomy as a result of the use of a specialized stereoscopic endoscope lens which is connected to a high definition camera.
  • Second, robotic surgeons operate with multi-jointed 8 mm instruments which have the same dexterity as the human wrist. Taken together, robotic surgery provides better visualization of the critical structures surrounding the prostate gland and allows surgeons to operate with the same flexibility and ease as an open surgeon has when performing open prostatectomy, while at the same time accomplishing this through smaller incisions with significantly reduced blood loss.

How long have University of Florida surgeons been performing robotic prostatectomy?

  • Our robotic surgeons have all received extensive advanced fellowship training in laparoscopic and robotic surgery and have been performing robotic prostatectomy since 2002.

How long does this surgery take?

  • Robotic prostatectomy generally takes 2-4 hours depending on many factors including size of the prostate gland, presence of obesity, prior abdominal surgery and scar tissue, and other factors.  Many of these pre-existing factors mandate a longer operative time. Our surgeons focus on performing a thorough and meticulous surgery and not on speed of the operation.

What happens if complications arise and conversion to open surgery is required?

  • Although extremely rare, conversion to open surgery may be required if difficulty with dissection or extensive bleeding is encountered during the robotic approach.  Our surgeons are trained in open surgical approaches as well as laparoscopy and robotic surgery and therefore are well equipped to complete the surgery in an laparoscopic or open fashion if needed.

What is the overall success rate in terms of cancer cure for robotic prostatectomy?

  • The timing and extent of return of urinary continence and sexual potency following prostatectomy is a complex process that is time dependent and multifactorial.  Some of the factors that influence the success of return of these quality of life issues include patient factors such as age, preoperative urinary and sexual function, and presence of medical conditions such as hypertension and diabetes. In addition, surgical factors such as quality and quantity of nerve preservation can influence outcomes.

What is the overall success rate in terms of potency and continence following robotic prostatectomy?

  • The timing and extent of return of urinary continence and sexual potency following prostatectomy is a complex process that is time dependent and multifactorial.  Some of the factors that influence the success of return of these quality of life issues include patient factors such as age, preoperative urinary and sexual function, and presence of medical conditions such as hypertension and diabetes. In addition, surgical factors such as quality and quantity of nerve preservation can influence outcomes.
  • For young patients (<60 years old) who were preoperatively potent with no urinary issues who receive bilateral nerve preservation, 87% and 93% were continent (defined as 0-1 security pad) and 73% and 88% were potent (defined as having the ability to engage in intercourse with or without the use of phosphodiesterase inhibitor medications) at 6 and 12 months respectively.  These results can vary significantly dependent on individual circumstances including extent of cancer, age, and comorbid medical conditions. Please refer to graphs of continence and potency outcomes above.

Will I need further treatment such as radiation or chemotherapy following surgery?

  • For patients with organ confined prostate cancer that has not spread beyond the prostate capsule or into the lymph nodes or seminal vesicles, prognosis remains excellent as most are cured with surgery alone. In cases where more invasive or metastatic disease is found, additional treatments including radiation and hormonal therapy may be required. There are clinical trials with chemotherapy and vaccine therapy that are available at our institution for cases of metastatic prostate cancer that are refractory to conventional treatments. These would be administrated under advisement of a medical oncologist.

What research efforts are University of Florida surgeons involved in to enhance result of robotic prostatectomy?

  • University of Florida robotic surgeons are involved in several exciting research projects pertaining to robotic prostatectomy. First, we are involved with prospective collection of perioperative outcomes for each patient undergoing robotic prostatectomy. In this way, our robotic surgeons track quality of life and cancer outcomes following surgery to assess trends in outcomes and the effects of changes in surgical technique or new technology on these outcome measures. Second, we are investigating new imaging modalities to identify the precise course and location of the neurovascular bundles as well as cancer sites during this procedure using novel MRI technology. Lastly, we have developed a robotic surgical simulator to help better prepare and train residents and fellows on the technical nuances of robotic surgery.

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