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Skin Grafting & Flap Surgery

Skin grafts and flaps are more serious than other forms of scar surgery. They're more likely to be performed in a hospital as inpatient procedures, using general anesthesia. The treated area may take several weeks or months to heal, and a support garment or bandage may be necessary for up to a year.

Grafting involves the transfer of skin from a healthy part of the body (the donor site) to cover the injured area. The graft is said to "take"when new blood vessels and scar tissue form in the injured area. While most grafts from a person's own skin are successful, sometimes the graft doesn't take. In addition, all grafts leave some scarring at the donor and recipient sites.

Flap surgery is a complex procedure in which skin, along with the underlying fat, blood vessels, and sometimes the muscle, is moved from a healthy part of the body to the injured site. In some flaps, the blood supply remains attached at one end to the donor site; in others, the blood vessels in the flap are reattached to vessels at the new site using microvascular surgery.

Skin grafting and flap surgery can greatly improve the function of a scarred area. The cosmetic results may be less satisfactory, since the transferred skin may not precisely match the color and texture of the surrounding skin. In general, flap surgery produces better cosmetic results than skin grafts.

Skin Grafts

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.

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.