Reconstructive Surgery: Procedures at a Glance
We bring back, refashion and restore to wholeness the features that nature gave but chance destroyed, not that they may be an advantage to the living soul, not as a mean artifice but as an alleviation of illness, not as becomes charlatans but as becomes good physicians and followers of the great Hippocrates. For though the original beauty is indeed restored… the end for which the physician is working is that the features should fulfill their offices according to nature’s decree.
Gaspare Tagliacozzi, 1597
What is Reconstructive Surgery?
It’s estimated that more that one million reconstructive procedures are performed by plastic surgeons every year. Reconstructive surgery helps patients of all ages and types — whether it’s a child with a birth defect, a young adult injured in an accident, or an older adult with a problem caused by aging.
The goals of reconstructive surgery differ from those of cosmetic surgery. Reconstructive surgery is performed on abnormal structures of the body, caused by birth defects, developmental abnormalities, trauma or injury, infection, tumors, or disease. It is generally performed to improve function, but may also be done to approximate a normal appearance.
Cosmetic surgery is performed to reshape normal structures of the body to improve the patient’s appearance and self-esteem.
Although no amount of surgery can achieve “perfection,” modern treatment options allow plastic surgeons to achieve improvements in form and function thought to be impossible 10 years ago.
This will give you a basic understanding of some commonly-used techniques in reconstructive surgery. It won’t answer all of your questions, since each problem is unique and a great deal depends on your individual circumstances. Please be sure to ask your doctor to explain anything you don’t understand. Also, ask for information that specifically details the procedure you are considering for yourself or your child.
Who has Reconstructive Surgery?
There are two basic categories of patients: those who have congenital deformities, otherwise known as birth defects, and those with developmental deformities, acquired as a result of accident, infection, disease, or in some cases, aging.
Some common examples of congenital abnormalities are birthmarks; cleft-lip and palate deformities; hand deformities such as syndactyly (webbed fingers), or extra or absent fingers; and abnormal breast development.
Burn wounds, lacerations, growths, and aging problems are considered acquired deformities. In some cases, patients may find that a procedure commonly thought to be aesthetic in nature may be performed to achieve a reconstructive goal. For example, some older adults with redundant or drooping eyelid skin blocking their field of vision might have eyelid surgery. Or an adult whose face has an asymmetrical look because of paralysis might have a balancing facelift. Although appearance is enhanced, the main goal of the surgery is to restore function.
Large, sagging breasts are one example of a deformity that develops as a result of genetics, hormonal changes, or disease. Breast reduction, or reduction mammaplasty, is the reconstructive procedure designed to give a woman smaller, more comfortable breasts in proportion with the rest of her body.
In another case, a young child might have reconstructive otoplasty (outer-ear surgery) to correct overly-large or deformed ears. Usually, health insurance policies will consider the cost of reconstructive surgery a covered expense. Check with your carrier to make sure you’re covered and to see if there are any limitations on the type of surgery you’re planning. Work with your doctor to get pre-authorization from the insurer for the procedure.
All Surgery Carries Some Uncertainty and Risk
When reconstructive surgery is performed by a qualified plastic surgeon, complications are infrequent and usually minor. However, individuals vary greatly in their anatomy and healing ability and the outcome is never completely predictable.
As with any surgery, complications can occur. These may include infection; excessive bleeding, such as hematomas (pooling of blood beneath the skin); significant bruising and wound-healing difficulties; and problems related to anesthesia and surgery.
There are a number of factors that may increase the risk of complications in healing. In general, a patient is considered to be a higher risk if he or she is a smoker; has a connective-tissue disease; has areas of damaged skin from radiation therapy; has decreased circulation to the surgical area; has HIV or an impaired immune system; or has poor nutrition. If you regularly take aspirin or some other medication that affects blood clotting, it’s likely that you’ll be asked to stop a week or two before surgery.
Planning Your Surgery
In evaluating your condition, a plastic surgeon will be guided by a se t of rules known as the reconstructive ladder. The least-complex types of treatments-such as simple wound closure-are at the lower part of the ladder. Any highly complex procedure-like micro-surgery to reattach severed limbs-would occupy one of the ladder’s highest rungs. A plastic surgeon will almost always begin at the bottom of the reconstructive ladder in deciding how to approach a patient’s treatment, favoring the most direct, least-complex way of achieving the desired result.
The size, nature and extent of the injury or deformity will determine what treatment option is chosen and how quickly the surgery will be performed. Reconstructive surgery frequently demands complex planning and may require a number of procedures done in stages.
Because it’s not always possible to predict how growth will affect outcome, a growing child may have to plan for regular follow-up visits on a long-term basis to allow additional surgery as the child matures.