In deciding how to treat a wound, a plastic surgeon must carefully assess its size, severity, and features:
- Is skin missing?
- Have nerves or muscles been damaged?
- Has skeletal support been affected?
As you and your plastic surgeon form your surgical plan, it’s important to have a clear understanding of what will happen during the procedure. Asking questions is key to making an informed decision.
Direct closure is usually performed on skin-surface wounds that have straight edges, such as a simple cut. Maximum attention is given to the aesthetic result, taking extra care to minimize noticeable stitch marks.
A wound that is wide and difficult or impossible to close directly may be treated with a skin graft. A skin graft is basically a patch of healthy skin that is taken from one area of the body, called the “donor site,” and used to cover another area where skin is missing or damaged.
There are three basic types of skin grafts.
A split-thickness skin graft, commonly used to treat burn wounds, uses only the layers of skin closest to the surface. When possible, your plastic surgeon will choose a less conspicuous donor site. Location will be determined in part by the size and color of the skin patch needed. The skin will grow back at the donor site, however, it may be a bit lighter in color.
A full-thickness skin graft might be used to treat a burn wound that is deep and large, or to cover jointed areas where maximum skin elasticity and movement are needed. As its name implies, the surgeon lifts a full-thickness (all layers) section of skin from the donor site. A thin line scar usually results from a direct wound closure at the donor site.
A composite graft is used when the wound to be covered needs more underlying support, as with skin cancer on the nose. A composite graft requires lifting all the layers of skin, fat, and sometimes the underlying cartilage from the donor site. A straight-line scar will remain at the site where the graft was taken. It will fade with time.
Tissue expansion is a procedure that enables the body to “grow” extra skin by stretching adjacent tissue. A balloon-like device called an expander is inserted under the skin near the area to be repaired and then gradually filled with salt water over time, causing the skin to stretch and grow. The time involved in tissue expansion depends on the individual case and the size of the area to be repaired.
The advantages of tissue expansion are many: it offers a near-perfect match of skin color, sensation, and texture; the risk of tissue loss is decreased because the skin remains connected to its original blood and nerve supply; and scars are less apparent than those in flaps or grafts. The expander temporarily creates what can be an unsightly bulge, making this option undesirable for some patients.
Advanced Wound Care: Flap Surgery/MicroSurgery
Though success will largely depend on the extent of a patient’s injury, flap surgery and microsurgery have vastly improved a plastic surgeon’s ability to help a severely injured or disfigured patient. Using advanced techniques that often take many hours and may require the use of an operating microscope, plastic surgeons can now replant amputated fingers or transplant large sections of tissue, muscle or bone from one area of the body to another with the original blood supply in tact.
A flap is a section of living tissue that carries its own blood supply and is moved from one area of the body to another. Flap surgery can restore form and function to areas of the body that have lost skin, fat, muscle movement, and/or skeletal support.
A local flap uses a piece of skin and underlying tissue that lie adjacent to the wound. The flap remains attached at one end so that it continues to be nourished by its original blood supply, and is repositioned over the wounded area. A regional flap uses a section of tissue that is attached by a specific blood vessel. When the flap is lifted, it needs only a very narrow attachment to the original site to receive its nourishing blood supply from the tethered artery and vein.
A musculocutaneous flap, also called a muscle and skin flap, is used when the area to be covered needs more bulk and a more robust blood supply. Musculocutaneous flaps are often used in breast reconstruction to rebuild a breast after mastectomy. This type of flap remains “tethered” to its original blood supply.
In a bone/soft tissue flap, bone, along with the overlying skin, is transferred to the wounded area, carrying its own blood supply. A microvascular free flap is a section of tissue and skin that is completely detached from its original site and reattached to its new site by hooking up all the tiny blood vessels.