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Ann Chir Gynaecol. 1997;86(4):311-7.

The success rate of free flaps after preoperative irradiation in head and neck reconstruction.

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Department of Otorhinolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery, Turku University Central Hospital, Finland.



The reconstructive treatment of large head and neck tumours involves serious problems. Preoperative irradiation increases the risk of postoperative complications. Microvascular free flaps offer definite advantages over conventional reconstruction techniques and permit immediate preoperative high-dose radiation therapy.


In 1985-1996, at the Turku University Central Hospital, 101 patients, 61 (60%) men and 40 (40%) women (age range 15-79 years, mean 61 years), with head and neck tumours, underwent microvascular reconstructions, and 90 of them were irradiated before surgery. All irradiated patients underwent primary reconstruction immediately after resection. The total irradiation dose was about 60 Gy, usual range 50 to 65 Gy. The patients were operated on 3 to 5 weeks after discontinuation of irradiation therapy.


Of the whole material of 101 free flaps, 89 (88%) were transferred successfully. The success rate in irradiated patients was 88% and in nonirradiated patients 91%. Reoperation had to be performed within twelve hours in three cases, with good results. Only two hernias occurred as donor complications (2%). Two of the patients died postoperatively (2%). Partial flap necrosis occurred in five patients and five patients underwent another reconstruction using a new free flap or with conventional reconstruction techniques.


Free flaps are often the only acceptable choice in extensive head and neck primary reconstructions after irradiation. Microvascular free tissue transfers to the head and neck after preoperative irradiation has become the accepted method of reconstruction as a result of increased success rates with superior aesthetic and functional results.

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