Breast reconstruction

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Breast reconstruction is the rebuilding of a breast, usually in women. It involves using autologous tissue or prosthetic material to construct a natural-looking breast. Often this includes the reformation of a natural-looking areola and nipple. This procedure involves the use of implants or relocated flaps of the patient's own tissue.


The primary part of the procedure can often be carried out immediately following the mastectomy. As with many other surgeries, those with high blood pressure, obese individuals or those who smoke are poor candidates.

Breast reconstruction is a large undertaking and most procedures take multiple operations. Sometimes these follow-up surgeries are spread out over weeks or months. If an implant is used, the individual runs the same risks and complications as those who use them for breast augmentation but has higher rates of capsular contracture and revisional surgeries.


There are many methods for breast reconstruction. The two most common are:

  • Tissue Expander - Breast implants This is the most common technique used in the United States. The surgeon inserts a small balloon expander beneath the pectoralis major muscle of the chest wall and periodically, over weeks or months, injects a saline solution to slowly expand the overlaying tissue. Once the expander has reached an acceptable size, it may be removed and replaced with a more permanent implant. Reconstruction of the areola and nipple are performed in a separate operation after the skin has stretched to its final size.
  • Flap reconstruction The second most common procedure uses tissue from other parts of the patient's body, such as the back, buttocks, thigh or abdomen. This procedure may be performed by leaving the donor tissue connected to the original site to retain its blood supply (the vessels are tunnelled beneath the skin surface to the new site) or it may be cut off and new blood supply may be connected.
    • Back flap The latissimus dorsi muscle is the donor tissue available on the back. It is a large flat muscle which can be employed without loss of function. It can be moved into the breast defect still attached to its blood supply under the arm pit (axilla). A latissimus flap is usually used to recruit soft-tissue coverage over a submuscular implant.
    • Abdominal flaps The abdominal flap for breast reconstruction is the TRAM flap or its technically distinct variant the DIEP flap. Both use the abdominal tissue between the umbilicus and the pubis. The DIEP and free-TRAM flaps require advanced microsurgical technique and are less common as a result. Both can provide enough tissue to reconstruct large breasts. The contour of the lower abdomen is reliably improved by these procedures which remove the same tissue as an abdominoplasty (tummy tuck.) TRAM flap procedures may weaken the abdominal muscles, but are usually tolerated well in most patients. To prevent muscle weakness and incisional hernias, the portion of abdominal wall exposed by reflection of the rectus abdominis muscle may be strengthened by a piece of surgical mesh placed over the defect and sutured in place.
The TRAM Flap Procedure
Identification of the target and donor sites Raising the flap and transposing it to the target site The result of the reconstruction

Other considerations

Nipple reconstruction is usually delayed until after the breast mound reconstruction is completed so that the positioning can be planned precisely. There are several methods of reconstructing the nipple-areolar complex, including:

  • Nipple-Areolar Graft (Sharing) - if the contralateral breast has not been reconstructed and the nipple and areolar are sufficiently large, tissue may be harvested and used to recreate the nipple-areolar complex on the reconstructed side. Note that these technique is unfavourable due to the high risk of donor-site complications including loss of sensation in the nipple and an unpleasant cosmetic result at the donor site, and due to the recent improvements in the cosmetic result that can be achieved using tattoos.
  • Local Tissue Flaps - a nipple may be created by raising a small flap in the target area and producing a raised mound of skin. To create an areolar a circular incision may be made around the new nipple and sutured back again. The nipple and areolar region may then be tattooed to produce a realistic colour/match the contralateral colour.

One of the challenges in breast reconstruction is to match the reconstructed breast to the mature breast on the other side (often fairly 'ptotic' - droopy.) This often requires a lift (mastopexy) or reduction of the other breast. Occasionally women may request an augmentation of the other breast at the same time as their cancer reconstruction.


Recovery from skin expansion is generally faster than with flap reconstruction, but both take three to six weeks to recover from and both require follow-up surgeries in order to construct a new areola and nipple. Most scars will not disappear completely, but the better the quality of the reconstruction, the less noticeable and distracting the scars will be. All recipients of these operations should refrain from strenuous sports, overhead lifting and sexual activity during the recovery period (three to six weeks).

See also

External links


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