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Stitches or Sutures: Wound Closure Today and in History

Linda Crampton is an experienced teacher with a first-class honors degree in biology. She writes about the scientific basis of disease.

An atraumatic (swaged) needle and attached thread held in a needle holder; in this case, the suturing needle is curved

An atraumatic (swaged) needle and attached thread held in a needle holder; in this case, the suturing needle is curved

Techniques for Closing Wounds

From ancient to modern times, healers have joined the separated edges of wounds together by sewing. It’s a good technique to close spaces, reduce infection, speed healing, and minimize scarring. Sewing is still a common method for repairing large and gaping wounds today, but newer techniques are being used as well. These include sealing injured areas with medical tape, adhesive, and staples. The use of lasers to close wounds may be common in the near future.

As long ago as the Upper Paleolithic period, people sewed. They punched holes in animal hides with needles made from bone, antler, horn, or ivory and then drew thread through the holes. It’s unknown when people first realized that just as pieces of animal skin can be sewn together, so can pieces of human skin.

Ancient Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians—and perhaps even earlier cultures—knew about the value of sewing or suturing wounds. The earliest written records describing the use of medical sutures come from Ancient Egypt, where physicians used stitches to close injuries, incisions, and mummies, but their medical uses may have begun long before this time.

There is some debate in the literature about the exact meanings of "stitch" and "suture." Based on my reading, the terms are often used interchangeably, though some people object to this practice. I have chosen to use suturing as the name for the technique and stitches or sutures as the name for the result.

A flat bone sewing needle from the Upper Paleolithic period

A flat bone sewing needle from the Upper Paleolithic period

The information in this article is presented for general interest. Historical and alternate suturing techniques are interesting to study but can be ineffective and can lead to infection. Anyone who has questions about suturing techniques for minor or major wounds should consult a doctor.

Early Needles and Threads

The oldest known eyed sewing needle is about 25,000 years old and was discovered in France. It’s made of bone. Even older implements that may have been sewing needles have been found. The earliest threads were probably plant fibers like cotton, flax, and hemp, or animal fibers such as hair, muscle strips, tendons, nerves, arteries, strips of gut, and silk.

The eyed needle is a dual-purpose device and was a very useful invention in human history. Using one end of a needle to pierce holes in two pieces of material and the other end, or eye, to pull a thread through the holes to join the materials together is a simple but effective technique. It's helpful for both repairing damage and making new items.

As time progressed, metal needles replaced bone ones. The earliest known iron sewing needles were discovered in Germany and date from the third century B.C. Today both metal needles and needles made of synthetic materials are available.

Although eyed needles are used in medicine today, a newer type in which the thread is fused with the needle may be preferred.

Ant bites have been used to provide natural sutures.

Ant bites have been used to provide natural sutures.

Suturing Techniques From Nature

Nature has provided people with suturing materials in the past and sometimes still does in the present. Large ants are used as suturing agents in some cultures. An ant is provoked so that it bites the edges of a wound, pulling them together. The insect’s body is then removed, leaving the head grasping the broken ends of the skin and acting as a clamp that sutures the injury. (Some ants are venomous, so without the correct identification handling them could be dangerous.) Another natural technique for suturing wounds is to use plant thorns as needles and plant fibers as threads.

Needles and suture materials from nature may be useful in an emergency, but they are more likely to produce infected wounds than modern suturing techniques performed by medical professionals. Doctors know how to clean wounds properly and stop bleeding if it's still occurring when a wound is about to be repaired. They use sterilized needles and thread and are experienced in minimizing scar formation or scar visibility.

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Modern Suturing Needles

Modern suturing needles come in a range of body and tip shapes, enabling a doctor to choose the best implement for the job at hand. A variety of threads and styles can be used to create the stitches.

Suturing may be performed with an eyed needle and separate thread that needs to be drawn through the eye before use. It may also be done with an eyeless needle called a swaged or atraumatic needle, which is supplied by the manufacturer with the thread pre-attached. Swaged needles are "atraumatic" because they generally have a gentler effect on body tissue. The suturing needle is held in a needle holder, which the sewer moves to guide the needle and its thread as he or she sutures a wound.

In continuous sutures, one piece of thread is used to create all of the stitches. The thread isn't cut and tied until the last stitch has been created. In interrupted sutures, the stitches aren't connected. Each stitch is individually placed and tied.

Suture Materials

A wide range of materials is available to make the threads of today’s sutures, giving a doctor many options. Sutures are classified as absorbable or non-absorbable. Absorbable sutures, also known as dissolving stitches, are eventually broken down by the body. Non-absorbable ones need to be removed once a wound has healed and the broken skin pieces have formed a permanent bond.

Absorbable sutures are often made of synthetic polymers produced from substances such as polyglycolic acid, polydioxanone, and poliglecaprone 25. In some countries, absorbable sutures are also made of gut material obtained from cow or sheep intestines. This material is sometimes called "catgut," but it isn't made from cat organs. Two varieties of catgut are plain and chromic. Chromic catgut has had chromium salts added so that it lasts longer in the body than the plain kind. Non-absorbable sutures are made from silk, nylon, polypropylene, polyester, or other artificial materials.

A doctor has other choices besides the ones described above. The filament for stitches comes in different diameters and the needles have different characteristics, for example. In addition, the doctor can choose whether stitches should be interrupted or continuous and can also choose features related to the style and depth of the suture.

Although interrupted sutures take longer to create than continuous ones, they have at least one advantage: if one interrupted stitch breaks, the others may be able to keep the wound closed. This is less likely in continuous sutures.

Closing Wounds with Butterfly Stitches, Adhesives, and Staples

Butterfly Stitches

Butterfly stitches (or butterfly enclosures) are narrow strips of adhesive tape with a specific shape and properties. They are used to seal small wounds. The strips are placed across a wound to pull the broken edges of the skin together. They aren't true stitches, despite their name, but they may be more helpful than a typical band-aid for minor injuries. Some manufacturers sell related products.


Skin adhesive is sometimes called skin glue or liquid stitches. It's generally used to treat minor wounds with straight skin edges. As the liquid adhesive dries, it pulls the edges of the wound together. The adhesive is generally waterproof (but it does need to be gently patted dry after a bath or shower) and eventually falls off. Many skin glues contain acrylates.


Surgical staples are also used to hold the edges of broken skin together. In addition, they’re sometimes used to hold broken parts of a lung, intestine, or other organs together because staples may allow less air or body fluid to escape than thread sutures do. Thread sutures that are correctly placed are often considered to be just as effective as staples, however.

Staples are quicker to apply than regular sutures and can be placed accurately and evenly. The staples are made of a titanium alloy, stainless steel, or a plastic. Absorbable staples made from polyglycolic acid are also available.

Anyone treating a minor wound at home needs to use proper first aid procedures to stop bleeding and prevent infection. If a wound is serious enough to need treatment by over-the-counter butterfly stitches or related products, it should be monitored carefully. A doctor's help may be required.

Band-aids can work well for minor wounds, but sometimes more help is needed.

Band-aids can work well for minor wounds, but sometimes more help is needed.

Laser Tissue Welding

Sealing wounds with a laser is an exciting new treatment that offers several advantages over other wound closure methods. It isn't routinely used in humans yet, but it may be one day. Laser treatment repairs damage rapidly and produces a watertight seal. It shortens the time needed for surgery as well as the wound healing time. The technical name for the process is photochemical tissue bonding or laser-assisted nanosuturing.

Laser sutures have been tested on animal tissue and in humans. Researchers at the Massachusetts General Hospital have reported that when the skin on each side of an open wound is coated with a dye called Rose Bengal, green laser light will seal the wound. The light activates the dye and causes it to bind the collagen in the separated pieces of skin together. Unlike the case with the first laser suture experiments, the skin isn't heated or burned.

The bond between the skin sections is continuous and lacks the gaps that occur between conventional sutures. This may decrease the chance of an infection developing. In addition, the researchers found that the healed wound had an improved appearance and that the patients who received the laser treatment experienced less inflammation than with the usual treatments.

Rose Bengal is a stain that is sometimes used by ophthalmologists to make parts of the eye stand out. It's being investigated for other medical uses besides eye examinations and laser welding.

Guiding Light Into Deep Tissues

A potential problem with creating laser sutures is that the light doesn't penetrate deeply into tissues. This has limited the use of lasers in closing wounds. One group of researchers has reported that they've created a bioabsorbable, comb-shaped waveguide that sends light into deep wounds. A bioabsorbable device gradually breaks down in the body, so it doesn't need to be removed once it's done its job.

The scientists found that when their device was used, light was able to travel ten times deeper into pig skin than it could in regular photochemical tissue bonding. Furthermore, the light was able to seal the wound throughout the thickness of the tissue. The technique doesn’t appear to have been used in humans yet, but it may eventually have very useful applications.

The small intestine and the colon and rectum (large intestine); sutures in the intestine must be strong to prevent the intestine from bursting.

The small intestine and the colon and rectum (large intestine); sutures in the intestine must be strong to prevent the intestine from bursting.

Lasers and a Protein Glue for Closing Wounds

Researchers at Arizona State University have created a "glue" that improves the effect of laser treatment on wounds. This improvement may be important in sensitive areas of the body, such as the intestine. Waves of muscle movement travel through the wall of the intestine to push food along its journey. The movement of muscle and food puts pressure on the intestinal wall.

There has been some concern that although lasers seal wounds rapidly, the seal might sometimes be weak, which could be serious in the intestine. Holes in the intestinal wall would allow food, enzymes, and bacteria to enter the abdominal cavity. This could cause a potentially life-threatening infection and dangerous inflammation.

The Arizona researchers have created a protein-based glue that also contains gold nanoparticles. These particles are rod-shaped and are 50 nanometers long and 15 nanometers wide. (A nanometer is one billionth of a meter,) The gold rods absorb near-infrared light from a laser beam and heat up, causing the artificial proteins in the glue to coagulate. The glue, therefore, acts as a solder when it's placed over a wound and heated by a laser.

In experiments with pig intestines, the researchers have found that their new glue solidifies into an elastic material. This material significantly increases the resistance to pressure in the intestine compared to the results of other types of laser treatment.

Other researchers are developing new adhesives or glues for surgical use. A suitable glue must stay effective when wet and remain in place in a body part that expands and relaxes, such as the intestine.

Wound Closure Today and in the Future

The simple technique of sewing skin sections together has helped heal wounds for thousands of years. Today improved suturing materials and techniques offer a better outcome than people in the past experienced, with less scarring. Even better techniques that produce more satisfactory results—such as laser tissue welding—may one day be common. The simple stitch has served us well over time, though, and probably will continue to do so, though perhaps in a modified form.


  • Stone Age Toolkit including a needle from PBS (Public Broadcasting Service)
  • Crime and Punishment in Ancient Surgery: An Examination of Assyrian and Egyptian Physicians from the Journal of Infectious Diseases and Preventive Medicine
  • Sutures and suturing information from Oxford Medical Education
  • Laser sutures: Closing wounds with light from the MIT Technology Review
  • How Lasers and Glue Help to Weld Tissue Ruptures from Scientific American
  • Bioabsorbable polymer optical waveguides for deep-tissue photomedicine from Nature

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

Questions & Answers

Question: What can be done with wounds on the bottom of your feet?

Answer: Wounds on the bottom of the foot may sometimes be difficult to treat and may lead to further problems. Unless the wound is a very minor and shallow one that can be treated by cleaning and the application of a band aid or similar small bandage, a doctor should be visited. Even an apparently minor wound on the sole of the foot should be checked frequently and carefully to make sure that it’s healing properly.

Another point to consider is how recently the injured person was vaccinated against tetanus. Tetanus, or lockjaw, is caused by a bacterium named Clostridium tetani. The bacterium is found in soil, dirt, and feces. These materials and the bacteria inside them can enter the body through a wound. Tetanus can be very serious and is sometimes life threatening. If your last tetanus shot was years ago or if you can’t remember when or if you’ve had one, it would be an excellent idea to visit your doctor to discuss the situation with them.

© 2012 Linda Crampton


Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 19, 2018:

Thank you very much for the comment and for sharing your experience, Liz. It sounds like you had a horrible time with your wound closure! If you do have surgery on the other knee, I hope things go much better for you.

Liz Elias from Oakley, CA on April 19, 2018:

Very interesting, indeed, Linda! I knew sewing was an ancient practice, but I did not realize it was also used medically so far back.

As to sutures vs. staples, thanks very much, but I prefer sutures. When I had my knee replacement surgery, they closed the incision with staples! Barbaric!

I'm here to tell you, removal of the staples caused me far worse pain than the actual post-operative pain!

If I ever need to have the other knee done, I'm going to insist on either regular old-fashioned sutures, or skin glue or the newer glue/laser technique you described.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on April 18, 2018:

Winged adhesive bandages are available for knees. They have a "wing" in each corner which helps them hug a knee as it bends. If they don't keep a wound closed, however, a doctor should be visited.

Michele mathison on April 18, 2018:

If you cut your knee open on the front at the bend how do you clos the wound and keep it from reopening when you bend your knee?

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on November 10, 2016:

Hi, Linda. I'd love to help you, but I think you should consult either your present doctor or another one. I'm a science writer and not a health professional, so I don't think that I should give advice to individuals about their specific situation. A doctor who is familiar with your knee damage would be the best person to consult. I hope you find a satisfactory answer to your question.

linda nohren on November 10, 2016:

In 2008 had knee replacement. They glued the incision. No problems. Very little scaring.

No removal of anything. Eight yrs. later need the other knee replaced. My doctor has retired. This doctor doesn't use glue. He will use staples. Not happy about this. I know I will be having more of a scar and the pain with removal of the sutures. This doesn't seem like progress to me. Can you give me any pros for the sutures?

Thanks, Linda

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on October 19, 2016:

Thank you for the comment, calyy.

calyy on October 19, 2016:

thank you

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on September 24, 2015:

I hope you don't need surgery on the other knee, DzyMsLzzy! Your experience sounds very unpleasant. It would be wonderful if doctors had Star Trek medical devices. Devices resembling them may be available one day. I hope they're created sooner rather than later!

Liz Elias from Oakley, CA on September 24, 2015:

Wow--most interesting indeed! I am a certified wuss, and eagerly await the 'Star Trek' level of medical repairs in which a non-invasive device is simply run across the wound, and presto! Instant healing! ;-)

I cannot even imagine the agony of having a wound sutured by those thick, clumsy-looking bone needles and who-knows-what kind of "thread," and before the days of anesthesia!

I had knee replacement surgery in 2013, and let me tell you, the post-op pain was nothing compared to the removal of those 26 staples!!! I'm afraid I howled like a baby! I have stated since that if I ever have to have that surgery on the other knee, that I am going to demand old-fashioned sutures, which are far less painful to have removed. (Staples just seem barbaric to me.)

But now, thanks to your article, I see there is laser wound closure, so I'll ask for that instead. ;-)

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on March 26, 2012:

Thank you for the visit and the comment, dr ilyas khan!

dr ilyas khan on March 26, 2012:

i am very glad to know about history of stiches. And different modren and old method of stiches. I am happy 4rm the bottom of heart. Thank u. Thank u and thanks

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on March 07, 2012:

Thank you, Gracenduta. Yes, older suturing techniques were probably painful. I'm glad that the modern techniques aren't!

Gracenduta from Kenya on March 06, 2012:

interesting article esp, on "suturing" technique" I bet it is painfu, thanks for the hub

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on February 29, 2012:

Thank you very much, Tom. I hope that your eyes heal quickly and that your vision is much better after your surgery!

Thomas Silvia from Massachusetts on February 29, 2012:

Hi Alicia, very interesting hub, some of it i did not know before. I just had surgery on both of my eyes and had no stitches, they have eye drops that help to heal it and keep it infection free.

Vote up and more !!!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on February 21, 2012:

Hi, Karanda. Yes, that scalp wound does look very unpleasant! Thanks for the comment and the vote.

Karen Wilton from Australia on February 21, 2012:

Most interesting Hub Alicia. Gosh that photo with the sutures on the back of the head - ouch. Looks horrific but the scar will probably end up paper fine.

Vote up from me too.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on February 19, 2012:

Thanks for the comment, the vote and the interesting information, ComfortB. Adhesive sounds like a much pleasanter technique than some of the other suturing methods. I'm so glad that it was invented!

Comfort Babatola from Bonaire, GA, USA on February 19, 2012:

My daughter just finished a project that requires her using two types of suturing technique (vertical and horizontal) on disected chicken breast to see which one holds better when weight(pressure)is applied.

Let just say, that chicken died many deaths. lol.

The adhesive was used on me during a major surgical procedure, and so was the staples on another occasion. The adhessive was so much better, less painful.

Great hub, voted up.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on February 19, 2012:

Hi, mljdgulley354. Thank you very much for the comment. Yes, thankfully we have come a long way in our development of medical treatments!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on February 19, 2012:

Thank you for the comment, Tina! Yes, it is interesting to think about who first got the idea of using ant bites as sutures. It sounds like a painful method of sealing a wound!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on February 19, 2012:

Hi, Nell. Yes, I've seen some early medical equipment at museums and it certainly is the stuff of nightmares! Thank you very much for the comment, the rating and the share, Nell - I appreciate them all.