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Tissue Expansion Reconstructive Plastic Surgery

Breast Reconstruction, Scalp Expansion — Birmingham AL Plastic Surgeons

Tissue Expansion is a relatively straightforward procedure that enables the body to "grow" extra skin for use in reconstructing almost any part of the body. A silicone balloon 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.

Growing extra skin for reconstructive plastic surgery can be necessary to repair skin damaged by birth defects, accidents or surgery. It is also used in certain cosmetic procedures. Tissue expansion is most commonly used to restore a woman's natural appearance with Breast Reconstruction when there is not enough skin to accommodate a permanent implant following breast removal.

Tissue Expansion Candidates

Almost anyone in need of additional skin can benefit from tissue expansion, from infants to elderly men and women.

  • Tissue expansion is an option for repairing or replacing areas of the scalp where hair growth makes it difficult to replace lost tissue with skin from other areas of the body.
  • Tissue expansion generally produces excellent results when reconstructing some areas of the face and neck, hands, arms and legs.
  • Tissue expansion may be more difficult on the back, torso or other areas where skin is thick. If the affected area is severely damaged or scarred, expansion is probably not an option since healthy skin is the first requirement.

Tissue Expansion Advantages

Until recently, surgeons were limited to skin flaps and skin grafts to reconstruct damaged tissue. However, tissue expansion provides an added technique with several advantages:

  • Expansion offers a near-perfect match of color, texture and hair-bearing qualities.
  • Because the skin remains connected to the donor area's blood and nerve supply, there is a smaller risk that it will die.
  • Because the skin doesn't have to be moved from one area to another, scars are often less apparent.

Tissue Expansion Disadvantages

Skin expansion has one significant drawback — the length of time required to grow additional skin. Depending on the area to be reconstructed, tissue expansion can take as long as 3 to 4 months. During this time, the expander creates what can be an unsightly bulge, which is desirable in breast reconstruction but can be quite noticeable for someone requiring repair of the scalp or other areas of the body. The procedure also requires repeated visits to the surgeon for injection of the salt water that inflates the balloon. For some people, the inconvenience and obvious appearance of an expander are enough for them to consider other options.

Your Tissue Expansion Consultation

By choosing a member of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons (ASPS) for your tissue expansion procedure, you can be assured that you are choosing a highly-trained, board-certified plastic surgeon. ASPS Member Surgeons must meet rigorous standards for training, ethics, physician practice and research in plastic surgery.

During your initial consultation, your surgeon will evaluate your condition. Your age, skin condition, medical history and other factors will help your surgeon determine if you will benefit from tissue expansion.

Your flexibility and tolerance for the inconvenience associated with this procedure will help you determine if you want to pursue it. Before proceeding with tissue expansion, discuss your expectations and your understanding of it with your surgeon. Be sure to ask your surgeon if there is anything you don't understand about the procedure.

Tissue Expansion Risks and Safety Information

Skin expansion at Hedden & Gunn Plastic Surgery can produce some remarkable results. As with any operation, there are risks associated with surgery and specific complications associated with this procedure.

The most common concern is that the silicone expander used in the procedure will break or leak while in the body. While expanders are rigorously tested and placed with care, leaks do occur. If the expander should leak, the salt water, or saline, solution used to fill the expander is harmlessly absorbed by your system and the expander is replaced in a relatively minor surgical procedure.

A small percentage of patients develop an infection around the expander. While this may occur at any time, it is most often seen within a few weeks after the expander is inserted. In some cases, the expander may need to be removed for several months until the infection clears. A new expander can then be inserted.

Preparing for Tissue Expansion

Your surgeon will give you specific instructions on how to prepare for surgery, including guidelines on eating and drinking, smoking and taking or avoiding certain medications. If you smoke, your surgeon will probably ask you to quit for at least 2 weeks before and after your surgery. Smoking may have an effect on how well you heal.

While most tissue expansion is performed in an outpatient surgical facility, the size and location of the expansion, as well as the preference of the patient and surgeon, will dictate where the surgery takes place. Whether your surgery is done on an outpatient or inpatient basis, you should arrange for someone to drive you home after your surgery and help you afterward if needed.

Your surgeon may begin tissue expansion immediately at the time of breast removal. If you have had an injury, your surgeon will probably recommend that tissue expansion be performed in an outpatient surgical facility after the wound has healed. More and more frequently, surgeons are performing tissue expansion on an outpatient basis for cost savings and convenience.

Tissue Expansion Procedures

Your surgeon may use local anesthesia combined with a sedative to make you drowsy. You will be awake but relaxed, and should feel little discomfort. Your surgeon may instead recommend the use of a general anesthesia, where you will sleep through the entire operation.

In most cases, the initial operation will take 1 to 2 hours depending on the size and area of skin to be expanded. Your surgeon will begin by making a small incision next to the area of skin to be repaired. He or she will do everything possible to make the incision as inconspicuous as possible.

Your surgeon will then insert the silicone balloon expander in a pocket created beneath the skin. The expander includes a tiny tube and a self-sealing valve that allows the surgeon to gradually fill the expander with saline solution. The valve is usually left just beneath the surface of the skin.

Expander Enlargement

Once the incision has healed, you will be asked to return to your surgeon's office periodically so that the expander can be injected with additional saline. As the expander enlarges, your skin will stretch. This procedure can cause minor discomfort for some people.

Secondary Operation

When the skin has stretched enough to cover the affected area, you will have a second operation to remove the expander and reposition the new tissue. In Breast Reconstruction, the surgery required to remove the expander and insert the permanent implant is relatively brief. More complex surgery to repair skin on the face or scalp takes longer and may require more than one expansion sequence to complete.

Example 1 — Scalp Tissue Expansion

Tissue expansion is ideal for scalp repair because the stretched skin on the scalp retains normal hair growth. Most other body tissue does not grow hair to the same degree.

Scalp expansion before and after

Example 2 — Breast Tissue Expansion

A silicone balloon expander is inserted beneath the skin. Once in place, the expander is gradually filled with salt water through a tiny valve. When the tissue has grown to the desired amount, the expander is removed. In breast reconstruction, a permanent implant is then inserted.

Breast expander

Example 3 — Arm Tissue Expansion

Expansion is also used to repair skin on the head and neck, hands, arms and legs.

Arm tissue expansion

Tissue Expansion Recovery and Follow-up

After Your Surgery

How you feel after surgery depends on the extent and complexity of the procedure. The initial surgery to insert the expander causes most patients only temporary discomfort, which can be controlled with medication prescribed by your physician.

You may feel some minor discomfort each time saline is injected into the expander, but this usually lasts only an hour or two. The follow-up procedure to remove the expander and put the new tissue in place may create some temporary discomfort, but this too can be controlled with medication.

Getting Back to Normal

How soon you resume your normal routine depends on the length, complexity and type of surgery you have had. For breast reconstruction patients, normal activity can resume in 2 to 4 days if tissue expansion is separate from breast removal.

Most tissue expansion patients find they can keep up with their normal routine while the expander is in place. Following the second surgery, most patients are up and about within a week.

Your New Look

The results of tissue expansion are generally superior to other methods used to reconstruct or repair damaged skin. But keep in mind that the goal is improvement, not perfection. For most tissue expansion patients, the procedure dramatically improves their appearance and quality of life following surgery. If you are physically healthy, psychologically stable and realistic in your expectations, you will probably be quite pleased with your new look.

Procedure Information © American Society of Plastic Surgeons

Hedden and Gunn Plastic Surgery

Tissue Expansion at Hedden & Gunn Plastic Surgery generates extra skin on virtually any area of the body for reconstructive plastic surgery procedures.

Birmingham, AL Office & Surgery Suites

Hedden & Gunn Plastic Surgery
140 Village Street
Birmingham, AL 35242
205-980-1744 or 800-HeddenMD
American Society of Plastic Surgeons* American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery*
* Dr. William Hedden, Dr. Stephen Gunn
Hedden and Gunn Plastic Surgery

Contact Us Today

Questions About Body Contouring?

Contact Hedden & Gunn Plastic Surgery in Birmingham, AL today to learn more about Tissue Expansion and other reconstructive plastic surgery techniques.

To schedule your consultation at the earliest possible date, please call 205-980-1744.

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