Cosmetic Surgery Tips

abdominal for breast reconstruction surgery

Abdominal Flap Breast Reconstruction Surgery

A breast reconstruction surgery is a procedure that’s designed to help you get the look of a natural breast after you’ve had a mastectomy. One type of surgery that can be used for this is called an abdominal flap.

The abdominal flap procedure involves taking a section of skin and fat from your abdomen and using it to create a new breast mound. This kind of surgery has become more popular since it was first developed in 1987, because it gives patients a more natural-looking result than other types of breast reconstruction procedures.

In this article, we’ll discuss how the abdominal flap procedure works, what some common complications are, and why you may want to consider having this type of surgery performed by a board-certified plastic surgeon who specializes in cancer reconstruction.

abdominal for breast reconstruction surgery

Breast reconstruction using body tissue

Breast reconstruction using body tissue

Your surgeon might be able to use your own body tissue to make a new breast during a mastectomy operation or some time afterwards. They call this a flap reconstruction.

Using body tissue to make a new breast

To do this your surgeon takes skin, fat, and sometimes muscle (a flap) from another part of your body and makes it into a breast shape. The flap needs a good blood supply, or the tissue will die. So the surgeon will leave the body tissue connected to its original blood vessels. Or they can cut the blood vessels and reconnect them to blood vessels under your arm or in your chest wall. 

If your surgeon leaves the flap connected to its own blood supply it is called a pedicled flap.

If they connect the flap to new blood vessels, this involves microsurgery and they call it a free flap.

Before your surgery, you may have a type of CT scan called a CT angiogram. This looks at the blood supply of the tissue that’s used to create the new breast.

Who has body tissue reconstruction?

Flap reconstruction methods might suit you if:

  • you have large breasts
  • you have had radiotherapy
  • you had a radical mastectomy with removal of your chest muscle
  • you have a tight mastectomy scar 
  • you want a softer and more realistic result than a silicone implant might give 
  • you are not able to have an implant

Who can’t have this type of surgery?

This type of surgery may not be suitable if you have diabetes, are a heavy smoker, or are very overweight. 

Types of body tissue reconstruction

Your surgeon can reconstruct your breast by:

  • using a flap from your back (latissimus dorsi flap) 
  • using a flap from your abdomen (TRAM flap) 
  • using just skin and fat from the abdomen (DIEP reconstruction)
  • using just skin and fat from the buttock (SGAP or IGAP)
  • using skin, fat and muscle from the thigh (TMG or TUG) 

Radiotherapy and flap reconstruction

If you have radiotherapy to a flap, this won’t affect it straight away. But it is may cause changes to the reconstructed breast in the future. After about 10 years the flap might shrink, discolour, harden, or change shape. You might then need further surgery to create a flap from a different part of the body.

Using a flap from your back (latissimus dorsi flap)

The latissimus dorsi is a muscle in your back, under your shoulder blade. Its job is to move the arm into your side and backwards. Other muscles around the shoulder also do the same job.

Your surgeon uses the muscle, and the skin and fat covering it, to make a new breast. You might need to have an implant put in as well if you have larger breasts. Or you could have the other breast made smaller.

The surgeon tunnels the flap under the skin to the front of the body to make the new breast. This is called a pedicled flap. With this type of reconstruction, the flap keeps its original blood supply.

Diagram showing reconstruction of the breast using the latissimus dorsi muscle and an implant

You will have a scar on your back, roughly 6 inches (15cm) long. You can choose to have the scar horizontally so you can hide it under your bra. Or you can have it diagonally if you don’t want it to show under backless clothes. You can discuss the position of the scar with your surgeon.

If you are having the reconstruction after your mastectomy, you will also have an oval scar on the reconstructed breast.

Diagram showing breast using the latissimus dorsi muscle

A latissmus dorsi flap operation takes less time to recover from than an operation using the abdominal muscles. You will be in hospital for about 4 days. It takes about 4 weeks to get over the surgery.

Using a flap from your abdomen (TRAM flap)

The rectus abdominis muscle is in your tummy (abdomen) and runs from your breastbone to your pubic bone. For a TRAM flap reconstruction the surgeon takes part of this muscle, with its skin, fat, and blood vessels. They move it to your chest wall to make a new breast.

The most common way of creating the new breast is called a free flap. Your surgeon completely cuts away the skin and fat from the abdomen. They then connect the flap’s blood vessels to blood vessels in the chest wall or armpit.

The surgeon will stitch up your abdomen in a similar way to having a tummy tuck.

Breast Reconstruction: Abdominal Flaps | MD Anderson Cancer Center

After a TRAM flap

After the operation, you stay on bed rest for about 48 hours. You may have a tube draining urine from your bladder (a catheter) so you don’t have to get up. Your room will be kept very warm to encourage a good blood flow to the flap.

You will have a scar running across your abdomen (horizontally). If you have the reconstruction after you had your mastectomy, you will also have an oval scar on the reconstructed breast.

You might feel uncomfortable for a while after your abdominal operation. Recovery takes longer than for the back flap method and you will be in hospital for about a week. It will be about 7 weeks in all before you have recovered. But it takes another 6 months or more before your tummy is as supple as before.

Possible complications

There is a risk of blood clots blocking the blood vessels in the flap, which cuts off the blood supply and the flap tissue will die. This complication can be serious but is not very common.

After TRAM flap reconstruction, the abdominal muscle can be weaker. This increases your risk of having a hernia in the future. Sometimes surgeons fix a piece of mesh in place during the operation to help strengthen the abdominal wall. 

  • Find out more about problems after breast reconstruction

Taking just skin and fat from the abdomen (DIEP reconstruction)

A DIEP reconstruction is very similar to abdominal muscle reconstruction. But the surgeon only takes skin and fat from the abdomen to make the breast shape. They leave the abdominal muscle in place as they remove the skin and fat along with the blood vessel that keeps the tissue alive.

DIEP stands for deep inferior epigastric perforators, which are the blood vessels used in the reconstruction.

The surgeon carefully teases out the blood vessel from the muscle. The advantage of this operation is that the abdominal wall is not so weakened, because the muscle is still there. So there is less risk of hernia afterwards.

Breast reconstruction with flap surgery - Mayo Clinic

With these flaps the surgeon uses microsurgery to join up the flap’s blood vessels to small blood vessels in the chest wall or armpit. As with the free TRAM flap, the blood supply can become completely blocked off with clots.

Some women may need to go back to the operating theatre within a few days to improve the blood supply. If the blood supply is cut off, the flap tissue dies and the reconstruction will fail, but this is rare.

Having a DIEP flap allows you to keep as much abdominal strength as possible. So you might want to have a DIEP reconstruction if your abdominal strength is very important to you. Do to talk to your surgeon about the benefits and risks of surgery and what is best for you.

Taking fat and skin from the buttocks (SGAP or IGAP)

Your surgeon might use microsurgery to move fat and skin from the buttock to create new breast tissue.

Taking tissue from the upper part of the buttock is a superior gluteal artery perforator flap (SGAP).

Taking tissue from the lower part of the buttock is an inferior gluteal artery perforator flap (IGAP).

Taking tissue from the buttock leaves a dent in that area and a small scar. Because the buttock tissue is often thicker than normal breast tissue it means your new breast can be a bit firmer than with other types of reconstruction.

These operations are more difficult than taking tissue from the back or abdomen and more likely to have complications. So this type of reconstruction is not commonly used and is generally for women who can’t have other types. Your surgeon might offer it if you are too slim to take tissue from the abdomen or if you have scarring from previous surgery in the abdomen or back.

Only a few surgeons in the UK can do this surgery and you might need to travel to a specialist hospital.

Taking fat, skin and muscle from the thigh (TMG or TUG)

Your surgeon might use microsurgery to move fat, skin and muscle from the upper part of the thigh.

Taking tissue from the outer part of the thigh is called a transverse myocutaneous gracilis flap (TMG), a lateral thigh flap, or a saddle bag flap.

Taking tissue from the inner part of the thigh is a transverse upper gracilis flap (TUG).

The operation leaves a dent in the thigh and a scar. 

These operations generally only give a small amount of tissue. So your surgeon might only consider them if you can’t have back or abdominal muscle reconstruction. Your surgeon may offer these operations if you are too slim to take tissue from the abdomen or if you have scarring from previous surgery in the abdomen or back.

Only a few surgeons in the UK can do this type of reconstruction and you may need to travel to a specialist hospital.

Reshaping the breast (lipomodelling)

Sometimes after surgery, the breast can look uneven. Surgeons can adjust the shape by injecting fat into the breast. They call this lipomodelling or lipofilling. 

This technique can improve the appearance of the breast by filling in dents after breast conserving surgery. It can also help to reshape the breast after breast reconstruction.

How you have lipomodelling

Surgeons remove fat from other parts of the body, for example, the hip or thighs. They do this by inserting a narrow tube (cannula) into the fat through a tiny cut (incision). They create suction using a vacuum pump or a large syringe. 

Your surgeon then injects the fat into the dents in the reconstructed breast to improve the shape. You usually have this as a day case, either under a general anaesthetic or local anaesthetic.

The scars from this procedure are small and often in an area where they can’t be seen.

Afterwards you may notice some bruising or have some pain around the areas where the fat was taken, these will gradually improve. Some fat is often absorbed into the body over time, so you may need to have this procedure more than once. 

Possible effects of injecting fat

Some surgeons have reported that injecting fat into the breast seems to reverse some of the side effects of radiotherapy. It seems to reduce thickening of the tissue in the radiotherapy area and reduce skin tightness. It might also lessen the appearance of blood vessels under the skin (telangiectasia). Some small research studies seem to support this finding. 

There are some theories about why the fat reverses these radiotherapy side effects. Surgeons think that stem cells in the transplanted fat tissue might stimulate healthy breast tissue to develop in the area. Or it may be because fat can create new blood vessels that increase the blood supply.

After reconstruction surgery

Looking after you wound

After surgery the wound is covered with a surgical dressing. Before you go home your nurse will give you instructions on caring for the wound. This will include showering the area and possible problems you should be aware of.

Bras and underwear  

Your bra can help to support the reconstruction. Your surgeon or breast cancer nurse may suggest you wear a soft supportive bra after your surgery. This may be day and night for a couple of weeks.

You may find that a bra that fastens at the front is more comfortable. If you have any swelling, you might need a slightly larger size than usual for a short time.

Your nurse may also suggest that you wear supportive underwear on your lower half. This is for women who have a reconstruction using muscle from their thighs, tummy, or buttock. This helps to reduce swelling and support the wound.

Do speak to your nurse or surgeon before your surgery. They may be able to suggest local places to buy these.


After the surgery you need to do some exercises to get your arm and shoulder moving properly again. Your nurse or physiotherapist will show you what to do and explain when to do them.

flap breast reconstruction surgery

Autologous or “Flap” Reconstruction Autologous reconstruction (sometimes called autogenous reconstruction) uses tissue — skin, fat, and sometimes muscle — from another place on your body to form a breast shape. Autologous reconstruction (sometimes called autogenous reconstruction) uses tissue — skin, fat, and sometimes muscle — from another place on your body to form a breast shape. The tissue (called a “flap”) usually comes from the belly, the back, buttocks, or inner thighs to create the reconstructed breast. The tissue can be completely separated from its original blood vessels and picked up and moved to its new place in your chest. This is frequently referred to as a “free flap.” Or the tissue can remain attached to its original blood vessels and moved under your skin to your chest. This is often referred to as a “pedicled flap.” In both types, the tissue is formed into the shape of a breast and stitched into place. Because pedicled flaps have been around longer and are easier to do, they tend to be more widely available. Free flaps require your plastic surgeon to have skill in microsurgery, which involves attaching the blood vessels from the tissue flap to the vessels in the chest area so that the new breast gets sufficient blood supply. Not all surgeons are trained in this type of surgery. Breast reconstruction using tissue from someplace else on your body is popular because it usually lasts a lifetime. Implants normally have to be replaced after 10 or 20 years. Also, the tissue on your belly, buttocks, and upper thighs is very similar to breast tissue, makes a good substitute, and can feel quite natural. But as with implant reconstruction, the new breast will have little, if any, sensation. You may have flap reconstruction at the same time as mastectomy (immediate reconstruction), after mastectomy and other treatments (delayed reconstruction), or you might have the staged approach, which involves some reconstructive surgery being done at the same time as mastectomy and some being done after (delayed-immediate reconstruction). In this section, you can read more about the different flap procedures. The initials in the names below refer to the specific tissue source. Flap reconstruction using tissue from your abdomen (belly, tummy): DIEP Flap SIEA Flap TRAM Flap Many women are pleased with breast reconstruction using belly tissue because it’s like having a tummy tuck to rebuild a breast. Flap reconstruction using tissue from your back: Latissimus Dorsi Flap Flap reconstruction using tissue from your hip/buttocks: IGAP Flap SGAP Flap/Hip Flap Flap reconstruction using tissue from your thighs: PAP Flap TUG Flap Multi-component/”hybrid” flap reconstruction using tissue from abdomen/hips: Body Lift Perforator Flap Stacked DIEP Flap Stacked/”Hybrid” GAP Flap Autologous breast reconstruction using fat tissue removed from your abdomen, buttocks, and/or thighs by liposuction: Fat Grafting The donor site for the tissue used for your flap reconstruction depends on a number of factors, including: ADVERTISEMENT Body type: If you have enough extra tissue in one place to recreate the breast, the location of that tissue can influence the type of flap reconstruction you have (such as TRAM, DIEP, GAP). If you’re thin, you may not have enough extra tissue on your belly for a TRAM, DIEP, or SIEA flap and your doctor may recommend a GAP, TUG, PAP, or latissimus dorsi flap. The latissimus flap is almost always combined with an implant. Specialized centers may be able to use multiple small flaps for one or both breasts in women who are thin and wish to avoid using implants. These stacked or “hybrid” flaps (Stacked DIEP, Body Lift Perforator, and Stacked GAP flaps) often can create enough volume for women who are very thin. They’re not widely available, however.. Breast size: If your breasts are large, you may have to use the donor site that has the most available extra tissue. The stacked or “hybrid” techniques may be used to supply more volume when necessary. Or, a flap reconstruction could be combined with an implant. Whether you plan on getting pregnant: If you plan to get pregnant after your breast reconstruction, you may not be able to have a TRAM flap because the stretching of the belly during pregnancy may put too much strain on the abdominal wall and the incision made to remove the flap tissue. The TRAM flap surgery does use part of the lower abdominal muscle. The DIEP or SIEA flap using belly tissue only (no muscle) may provide a more favorable abdominal wall for pregnancy after reconstruction. Many women have gone on to have healthy, uneventful pregnancies after these surgeries. You also could use tissue from another donor site such as the buttocks or thighs. Hospitals and plastic surgeons in your area: Flap reconstruction requires special surgical techniques, including microsurgery to reattach the flap’s blood vessels after it is placed in the chest, and not all surgeons have experience with them. If you feel strongly about having flap reconstruction, you may have to do some research to find the surgeons and facilities that offer what you want. Your doctor may be able to refer you to plastic surgeons who specialize in certain types of reconstruction. If you need to travel a distance for this surgery, talk to your insurance provider to make sure you’re covered. Things to know about flap reconstruction: The physical effects of each type of autologous reconstruction are highly individual to your body, your range of motion, your physical strength, and your normal day-to-day activities. Remember that while you’re healing from surgery, there will be at least two and perhaps four areas of the body that are healing at the same time — your reconstructed breast(s) and the donor tissue site(s), depending on whether one or both breasts are being reconstructed at the same time. Some women may also have a sentinel node biopsy or axillary node dissection at the same time, which means an additional incision. With all types of reconstruction (implant and flap), there is no “one and done” option: There is nearly always a later surgery to make adjustments, sometimes called “finishing work.” Examples include nipple reconstruction, reshaping a flap, removing extra fat from a donor site, or repositioning of an implant. Usually, none of these adjustments is absolutely required, so talk to your surgeon about your preferences. If you gain or lose weight, the size of a flap reconstruction can change along with the rest of your body. The breast(s) will get larger or smaller as your body changes. Flap reconstructions tolerate radiation therapy better than implants alone do. If radiation is part of your treatment plan, make sure to discuss this with your plastic surgeon. Once tissue is used to build a flap, tissue from that same area cannot be used again in the future. You might find it helpful to talk to someone who had the type of reconstruction you want about her decision process, her doctors, and her satisfaction with the results. The Discussion Boards are a great place to find someone who’s had the same type of reconstruction you’re considering.

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