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Sensory recovery in the sensate free transverse rectus abdominis myocutaneous flap

Lok H Yap, Susan C Whiten, Alan Forster, Howard J Stevenson
Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery 2005 April 15, 115 (5): 1280-8

BACKGROUND: Preservation and restoration of sensation to improve the quality of the reconstruction have not always been considered a priority in efforts to reconstruct the breast. Studies have documented spontaneous recovery of sensation in reconstructed breasts, but this recovery was variable and unpredictable. The authors conducted a pilot study to compare sensory recovery in innervated versus noninnervated microsurgical breast reconstruction patients.

METHODS: The authors investigated a group of 14 patients who had undergone microsurgical breast reconstruction with a muscle-sparing free transverse rectus abdominis myocutaneous flap. Seven patients had reinnervation of their flaps, and seven did not. The two patient groups were similar in age (mean age, 46 years for the innervated group and 51 years for the noninnervated group) and length of follow-up (mean duration of follow-up, 39 months for the innervated group and 40 months for the noninnervated group). Sensitivity to fine touch was assessed using Semmes-Weinstein monofilaments. By testing over a defined grid and over the entire reconstructed breast, it was possible to develop color maps, or sensory topograms, of the areas sensing different levels of pressure for each patient. The patient's ability to differentiate between hot (60 degrees C) and cold (5 degrees C) was recorded.

RESULTS: In a comparison of sensation in flap skin (skin paddle of rectus abdominis myocutaneous flap) with nonflap skin (native breast skin), sensitivity to fine touch was statistically better in (1) innervated flap skin compared with noninnervated flap skin (p = 0.003), (2) innervated nonflap skin compared with noninnervated flap skin (p = 0.006), (3) innervated nonflap skin compared with noninnervated nonflap skin (p = 0.037), and (4) innervated flap skin compared with noninnervated nonflap skin (p = 0.006). Temperature differentiation was significantly better in patients with innervated flaps than in patients with noninnervated flaps in all zones (p = 0.02). These differences persisted beyond a follow-up period of 3 years.

CONCLUSIONS: The authors' findings confirm that reinnervation of microsurgically reconstructed breasts achieves sensory recovery that is superior to that in breasts reconstructed without reinnervation. If sensation is important and the anatomical factors are favorable, reinnervation may represent a worthwhile refinement in attempts to achieve normality for patients undergoing breast reconstruction.

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