Skip to content

Advertisement

Open Access

Microvascular free-flap transfer for head and neck reconstruction in elderly patients

  • Francesco Turrà1,
  • Simone La Padula1,
  • Sergio Razzano1,
  • Paola Bonavolontà2,
  • Gisella Nele1,
  • Sergio Marlino1,
  • Luigi Canta1,
  • Pasquale Graziano2,
  • Giovanni Dell'Aversana Orabona2 and
  • Fabrizio Schonauer1Email author
BMC Surgery201313(Suppl 2):S27

https://doi.org/10.1186/1471-2482-13-S2-S27

Published: 8 October 2013

Abstract

Background

With the increase in life expectancy, the incidence of head and neck cancer has grown in the elderly population. Free tissue transfer has become the first choice, among all the reconstructive techniques, in these cases. The safety and success of micro vascular transfer have been well documented in the general population, but its positive results achieved in elderly patients have received less attention.

Methods

We retrospectively studied 28 patients over the age of 60 years. The aim of this paper was to study the success rate of free tissue transfer and investigate the complication incidence in this patient population.

Results

Twenty-eight free flaps were performed to reconstruct medium to large cervico-facial surgical defects in six years. No difference was noted between success and complication rates observed between general and elderly population.

Conclusion

This study indicates that free-flap technique for head and neck reconstruction could be considered a safe option in elderly patients when a good pre-operative general status is present.

Keywords

Free FlapFlap LossNeck ReconstructionMicrovascular Free FlapFlap Complication

Background

Microsurgical free-tissue transfer has gained a central role in plastic surgery for difficult reconstruction of head and neck defects, modifying the treatment of cancer in this region.

Although this technique has become a safe choice, complications may occur in 5-25%; these patients may require a surgical re-exploration of the free flap [1].

The proportion of elderly people with head and neck cancer is rising due to an overall increase in life expectancy.

The safety and success of free flap transfer have been well documented in the general population; positive results achieved in elderly patients have received less attention [2].

The aim of the present study is to investigate the effect of age on the outcome of such procedures, the medical impact of prolonged surgery and if it is worthy against the functional benefits and the better life expectancy achieved by the use of microvascular reconstruction.

Methods

We retrospectively reviewed our experience with microsurgical free-tissue transfer in patients over the age of 60 whom we arbitrarily defined as "elderly".

Between January 2007 and February 2013, 28 patients with head and neck cancer were treated at the Maxillofacial Surgical Unit and reconstructed by our Plastic Surgery team.

The patients were classified into two groups according to age: between 60 and 69 years (age group I) and between 70 and 79 years (age group II), respectively. Table 1.
Table 1

Patient series

Name

Age

Group

ASA

Type of tumour

Site

Reconstruction

Days in Intens.Care

Complications

PO

60

I

1

SCC

Cheek

Radial forearm

1

-

AR

60

I

2

Sarcoma

Mandible

Fibula osteocutaneous

1

Venous throbosis

GE

61

I

1

SCC

Mandible

Fibula osteocutaneous

2

-

AG

62

I

1

SCC

Palate

Radial forearm

1

-

MD

62

I

2

SCC

Tongue

Radial forearm

1

-

PM

63

I

2

SCC

Larynx and pharynx

Radial forearm

2

-

TD

64

I

1

BCC

Cheek (ext.)

Radial forearm

1

-

CG

65

I

2

SCC

Scalp

Latissimus dorsi

1

-

FS

65

I

1

SCC

Cheek (ext.)

Latissimus dorsi

1

-

DA

66

I

2

SCC

Tongue

Ulnar forearm

1

-

AP

66

I

2

SCC

Tongue

Ulnar forearm

1

-

DR

66

I

1

SCC

Floor and tongue

Radial forearm

1

-

DN

67

I

1

SCC

Floor and tongue

Radial forearm

1

-

SA

68

I

2

SCC

Cheek

Radial forearm

1

-

IB

69

I

1

SCC

Pharynx

Radial forearm

2

-

BM

70

II

2

SCC

Floor

Radial forearm

1

-

DC

70

II

1

SCC

Mandible

Fibula osteocutaneous

2

-

RA

71

II

1

SCC

Lips and cheek

Radial forearm

1

-

PA

72

II

3

SCC

Tongue

Radial forearm

3

Pulmonary failure

RM

72

II

2

SCC

Floor and tongue

Radial forearm

1

-

CR

72

II

1

SCC

Scalp

Latissimus dorsi

2

-

SG

73

II

2

SCC

Cheek

Radial forearm

1

Haematoma

SM

75

II

1

SCC

Tongue

Radial forearm

1

-

FS

75

II

2

SCC

Mandible

Fibula osteocutaneous

2

Partial necrosis

DM

75

II

1

SCC

Floor and tongue

Radial forearm

1

-

PI

76

II

2

SCC

Half right face

Rectum abodminis muscle

3

Venous thrombosis

GG

77

II

2

SCC

Half right face

Rectum abodminis muscle

2

-

TC

77

II

1

SCC

Floor and tongue

Radial forearm

1

-

The oral cavity was the most frequent site of reconstruction in all groups. All patients undergoing microsurgical free-tissue transfer were recovered in intensive care unit until their stabilization. The flap was monitored by checking paddle skin colour, bleeding and, if necessary, Doppler signal, every 2 hours for the first day, every 6h on day 2-3 and then less frequently until patient's discharge.

Many variables were analysed for each group. Our records were reviewed searching for diagnosis, free-flap type, defect site, patient age and sex, preoperative medical problem, length of operation, complications and operative mortality. We classified complications into two main clusters: technique-related (seroma, haematoma, infection, dehiscence, thrombosis, congestion and skin or flap loss) and general conditions-related. Technique complications were classified as major, requiring surgical re-exploration, or minor, not requiring re-exploration.

Long-term functional outcomes (speech, swallowing and chewing) were assessed 6 month after surgery.

Results and discussion

A total of 28 patients (20 male, 8 female; ranging 60 to 77 years) underwent a free-tissue transfer for head and neck tumours. Fifteen patients, were aged between 60 and 69 years (age group I) and thirteen patients were aged between 70 and 79 years (age group II).

Most frequent histological diagnosis, preoperatively indicated by biopsy, was squamous cell carcinoma.

Various free flap types were used to reconstruct a variety of defects. Microvascular free flaps used were: radial forearm (n = 17), fibula (n = 4), latissimus dorsi (n = 3), ulnar forearm (n = 2), rectus abdominis (n = 2). Total success rate was 93% (26/28).

Preoperative medical problems were evaluated through American Society of Anesthesiologists (ASA) score; just one patient classified as ASA III class underwent microvascular technique.

Donor site major complications were not observed.

Total complication rate was 17,9% (5/28); complications were divided into two different groups: technique-related and systemic condition-related. Four technique-related complications were observed (14,3%): of these three were major and one minor. Major flap complications (10,7%) consisted of one venous thrombosis of the pedicle and one partial necrosis in age group II (15,4%) and one venous thrombosis in age group I (6,7%). Flap salvage was possible in the younger patient with venous thrombosis by exploring the flap and performing a new anastomosis; in the older patient with partial necrosis another local flap was needed; total flap loss occurred in another case.

A minor flap complication occurred in the age group II (7,7%): an haematoma occurred at the recipient site and was evacuated at the patient bed, with no surgical re-exploration.

One patient, in the age group II, had a systemic complication that resulted in respiratory failure soon after the transfer to the intensive care unit. This patient with COPD was an heavy smoker.

Speech, swallowing and chewing assessed in our patients 6 months after surgery resulted well preserved.

Head and neck tumours are often diagnosed late, because of their lack of symptoms in the early stage. In these cases a large demolition is needed. Because of the importance of the quality of life, surgery has to be safe and give satisfactory functional outcomes. Microvascular free-tissue transfer has gained a central role for these large reconstructions to protect important functions of this region. The success rate of this surgery at the present time is reported to be in the range of 91% to 99% in large series from major microsurgical centers [35].

Age has been regarded frequently as an independent risk factor for bad surgical outcomes; before the 1960s the mortality rate for elderly patients undergoing elective surgery was 2-6 times higher than in the general population [6]. The reasons that may explain this difference are well documented; the most common medical problems that affect the mortality are heart failure, or the compromise of pulmonary function [7, 8].

The improvements in anaesthesia techniques explain the reduction of the mortality rate in elderly patients during these 40 years, especially for patients with cardiac disease [9].

Studies on microsurgical free flap conducted in elderly patients do not agree in defining the term "elderly", but they demonstrated that age is not an important factor influencing the success of this surgery [1013]. Pompei et al. in a large study of pedicled and free flaps for head and neck reconstructions showed that complications were related with comorbidities more than the age [14].

A reliable predictor of postoperative morbidity could be the ASA status as suggested in a study by Serletti et al. [13].

However, these studies stress how several factors can lead to free-flap complication; most of them reported that age does not impact the free transfer success, but results are variable.

Our results are comparable to the ones showed by Shestak et al. in their small series of cases. In this study 19 patients underwent a free flap reconstruction and results showed a 16% major surgical complication rate in patients over 70 years and 13% in patients under 70 years [10].

In the present study one patient died after this surgery (mortality rate 3,5%); this fatal post-operative complication was correlated with a higher ASA class.

Conclusion

In conclusion our study shows that microsurgical free-flap transfer can be considered a safe technique for head and neck reconstruction in all age groups. Pre-existing systemic disease could influence peri- and post-operative complications, and ASA status could be a well accepted way to select patients undergoing this surgery.
Figure 1

Squamous cell carcinoma of the right cheek and tonsillar pillar.

Figure 2

Transferred radial forearm free flap at two weeks.

Figure 3

Squamous cell carcinoma of the floor of the mouth.

Figure 4

Radial forearm free flap harvesting and its pedicle.

Figure 5

Settled radial forearm free flap at 6 months follow-up.

Figure 6

Healed skin grafted radial forearm free flap donor site 6 months after surgery.

Authors' information

FT: Medical Doctor. SLP: Resident in Plastic, Reconstructive and Aesthetic Surgery at University Federico II, Naples. SR: Resident in Plastic, Reconstructive and Aesthetic Surgery at University Federico II, Naples. PB: Resident in Maxillofacial Surgery at University Federico II, Naples. GN: Medical Student. SM: Resident in Plastic, Reconstructive and Aesthetic Surgery at University Federico II, Naples. LC: Specialist in Plastic, Reconstructive and Aesthetic Surgery at University Federico II, Naples. PG: Specialist in Maxillofacial Surgery at University Federico II, Naples. GDAO: Assistant Professor in Maxillofacial Surgery at University Federico II, Naples. FS: Assistant Professor in Plastic, Reconstructive and Aesthetic Surgery at University Federico II, Naples

List of abbreviations used

ASA: 

= American Society of Anesthesiologists

COPD: 

= Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease

SCC: 

= Squamous Cell Carcinoma

BCC: 

= Basal Cell Carcinoma.

Declarations

Declarations

Publication of this article was funded by research university funding.

This article has been published as part of BMC Surgery Volume 13 Supplement 2, 2013: Proceedings from the 26th National Congress of the Italian Society of Geriatric Surgery. The full contents of the supplement are available online at http://www.biomedcentral.com/bmcsurg/supplements/13/S2.

Authors’ Affiliations

(1)
Unit of Plastic, Reconstructive and Aesthetic Surgery, Federico II University, Naples, Italy
(2)
Department of Maxillofacial Surgery, Federico II University, Naples, Italy

References

  1. Salgado CJ, Moran SL, Mardini S: Flap monitoring and patient management. Plast Reconstr Surg. 2009, 124 (6 suppl): e295-e302.View ArticlePubMedGoogle Scholar
  2. Yu P, Chang DW, Miller MJ, et al: Analysis of 49 cases of flap compromise in 1310 free flaps for head and neck reconstruction. Head Neck. 2009, 31: 45-51. 10.1002/hed.20927.View ArticlePubMedGoogle Scholar
  3. Shaw WW: Microvascular free flaps: the first decade. Clin Plast Surg. 1983, 10: 3-PubMedGoogle Scholar
  4. Khouri RK: Free flap surgery: the second decade. Clin Plast Surg. 1992, 19: 757-PubMedGoogle Scholar
  5. Hidalgo DA, Jones CS: The role of emergent exploration in free-tissue transfer: A review of 150 consecutive cases. Plast Reconstr Surg. 1990, 86: 492-10.1097/00006534-199009000-00019.View ArticlePubMedGoogle Scholar
  6. Cole WH: Prediction of operative reserve in the elderly patient. Ann Surg. 1968, 168: 310-10.1097/00000658-196808000-00021.PubMed CentralView ArticlePubMedGoogle Scholar
  7. Guarnieri T, Filbrun CR, Zitnik G, et al: Contractile and biochemical correlates of b-adrenergic stimulation of the aged heart. Am J Physiol. 1980, 239: H501-8.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  8. Mannino DM, Davis KJ: Lung function decline and outcomes in elderly population. Thorax. 2006, 61: 472-7. 10.1136/thx.2005.052449.PubMed CentralView ArticlePubMedGoogle Scholar
  9. Foster ED, Davis KB, Carpenter JA, et al: Risk of noncardiac operation in patients with defined coronary disease. Ann Thorac Surg. 1986, 41: 42-50. 10.1016/S0003-4975(10)64494-3.View ArticlePubMedGoogle Scholar
  10. Shestak KC, Jones NF: Microsurgical free-tissue transfer in the elderly patients. Plast Reconstr Surg. 1991, 88: 259-63. 10.1097/00006534-199108000-00014.View ArticlePubMedGoogle Scholar
  11. Bonawitz SC, Schnarrs RH, Rosenthal AI, et al: Free tissue transfer in elderly patients. Plast Reconstr Surg. 1991, 87: 1074-79. 10.1097/00006534-199106000-00009.View ArticlePubMedGoogle Scholar
  12. Ziffren SE, Hartford CE: Comparative mortality for various surgical operations in older versus younger age group. J Am Geriatr Soc. 1972, 20: 485-9.View ArticlePubMedGoogle Scholar
  13. Classen DA, Ward H: Complications in a consecutive series of 250 free flap operations. Ann Plast Surg. 2006, 56: 557-61. 10.1097/01.sap.0000205830.39108.9a.View ArticlePubMedGoogle Scholar
  14. Pompei S, Tedesco M, Pozzi M, et al: Age as a risk factor in cervicofacial reconstruction. J Exp Clin Cancer Res. 1999, 18: 209-12.PubMedGoogle Scholar

Copyright

© Turrà et al; licensee BioMed Central Ltd. 2013

This article is published under license to BioMed Central Ltd. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

Advertisement