Authors of section


Brian Burkey, Neal Futran

Executive Editors

Gregorio Sánchez Aniceto, Marcelo Figari

General Editor

Daniel Buchbinder

Open all credits

Plate and radial forearm fasciocutaneous free flap

1. Introduction

Resections involving primarily skin and underlying mandible are uncommon. Potential entities producing this condition are, tumors arising in the mandible, submandibular gland malignancies, metastatic level I lymph nodes with extracapsular invasion extending to the overlying skin. As well as cutaneous malignancies eg. lip or cheek carcinoma invading the underlying mandible.

The resulting small intraoral mucosal defect is repaired primarily (floor of mouth to lateral cheek mucosa). Therefore, from a reconstructive view, making this a two layer defect involving the bone and overlying skin.

A composite resection (segmental mandibulectomy) is the treatment of choice for oral malignant tumors that invade the mandibular cortex and marrow space. It provides an oncologically sound margin for these tumors; however, it disrupts the continuity of the mandible.

primary closure

General goal of reconstruction

Reconstruction of the mandible allows for the restoration of form and function. It must address all the tissue losses in order to provide for the best function.

The general goal of reconstruction is the:

  • Restoration/maintenance of airway
  • Restoration of mandibular continuity
  • Restoration of dentition
  • Restoration of chewing (mastication) and swallowing (deglutition)
  • Restoration of facial cutaneous defects and contour
  • Consistently obtain a healed wound
  • Restoration of the oral stoma (if lip involved)

Some patients neither have the resources nor desire to undergo dental restoration. Therefore reconstruction of the mandible in these patients is limited to restoration of form and continuity of the mandible using a plate and soft tissue flap to avoid a drift of the mandibular segments.

Internal fixation hardware

Mandibular fixation is best achieved with the use of a load bearing locking mandibular reconstruction plate.

A wide variety of options are currently available:

  • 2.4 Uni-lock reconstruction plates
  • Matrix mandible reconstruction plates of different profiles (2.0, 2.5, 2.8), and screw diameters
  • Anatomically preformed mandibular reconstruction plates

For illustration purposes we will here show the use of a 2.4 reconstruction plate.

The advantage of the locking plate is that it does not require 100 % adaptation to the mandibular contour. Small gaps can be tolerated since the threaded screw head locks to the plate resulting in an internal "ExFix" construct.

plate and pectoralis major myocutaneous pedicle flap

When the tumor extends lateral to the mandible, the reconstruction plate cannot be fashioned by applying it directly to the mandible prior to the mandibulectomy. In this situation, special devices (ie. bridge fix) may be used to maintain the position of the proximal and distal segments in their preoperative anatomic position.

plate and pectoralis major myocutaneous pedicle flap

Alternatively, in the dentate patient the placement of arch bars or maxillo mandibular bridging plates and subsequent MMF on the intact part of the mandible can be used instead of the segmental fixation device.

plate and pectoralis major myocutaneous pedicle flap

Reconstruction with vascularized soft tissue graft

When osteocutaneous flaps are not desired or indicated, soft tissue defects may be reconstructed with vascularized soft tissue flaps.

When the radial forearm fasciocutaneous free flap is used, the presence of the lateral antebrachial cutaneous nerve provides the option of innervating the flap and restoring sensation to the oral cavity.

radial forearm fasciocutaneous free flap

2. Approach

The location and size of the tumor will dictate the surgical approach necessary for the performance of the ablative procedure.

The two following approaches are frequently used for the mandible:

Reconstruction of midface Brown II defect

3. Resection

Marking of incision lines

Incisions are marked out 1.5 cm around the entire visible and palpable tumor.

An extension of the incision is carried posteriorly towards the mastoid and anteriorly to the submental region. Additional extensions can be made according to surgeon's preference to allow for simultaneous neck dissection.

plate and pectoralis major myocutaneous pedicle flap

Neck dissection

When the neck dissection is performed, care must be taken to dissect and preserve potential recipient vessels.

It should be noted that on most occasions one or more branches of the facial nerve will need to be sacrificed due to tumor involvement.

plate and scapular osteocutaneous free flap

Skin incision around tumor

Dissection is carried through the skin incisions marked around the tumor and continued through the subcutaneous tissues until the mandibular bone is encountered.

plate and pectoralis major myocutaneous pedicle flap

The periosteum is incised keeping at least 1 cm margins around the involved mandibular bone. The periosteum and soft tissues proximal and distal to the proposed mandibulectomy are elevated to allow for placement of the segment positioning devices and subsequent application of the locking mandibular reconstruction plate. Proposed lines for mandibular osteotomies are marked.

pectoralis major myocutaneous pedicle flap

Extraction of teeth

In a dentate patient, the teeth in the line of the osteotomies are extracted.

plate and pectoralis major myocutaneous pedicle flap

Mandibulo-maxillary immobilization

Given the fact that the plate adaptation using a template is not possible because of the tumor invasion, the following solutions can be applied:

  • Mandibulo-maxillary fixation in order to maintain both bone stumps in position. This can usually be done applying plates from the remaining mandibular stumps to the maxilla or more conventional means using arch bars.
plate and pectoralis major myocutaneous pedicle flap

  • An external fixator (eg, bridge fix) could be put in place maintaining the bone stumps in proper relationship. The external fixator should be kept in place during the tumor resection not to lose the proper position of the mandibular stumps.

plate and pectoralis major myocutaneous pedicle flap

Osteotomy cuts

Bone cuts are now carried anterior and posterior to the tumor using a saw. Care is taken to resect at least 1 cm of normal bone on each side of the tumor.

plate and pectoralis major myocutaneous pedicle flap

Removal of the bone segment and tumor

The bone is retracted laterally. Soft tissue cuts are made through the previously marked resection limits in the mylohyoid muscle and the mucosa adjacent to the alveolus.

pectoralis major myocutaneous pedicle flap

The specimen is submitted en bloc for permanent pathological examination.

Surgical soft tissue margins are now checked with frozen sections to ensure the adequacy of the tumor resection.

pectoralis major myocutaneous pedicle flap

4. Reconstruction

Placement of reconstruction plate

A template is contoured to the external mandible to bridge the defect staying just superior to the inferior border. A minimum of 3 screw holes should be placed on either side of the defect.

A locking mandibular reconstruction plate is chosen to bridge the defect. This should be a load bearing plate (eg. 2.4 mm). Alternatively a preshaped anatomical mandibular reconstruction plate can also be used. The plate is then bent to match the template. The plate is placed onto the mandible and final adjustments are made to produce a near perfect fit.

A stereolithographic model with mirroring of the non-compromised side of the mandible can be used to pre bend the plate.

plate and pectoralis major myocutaneous pedicle flap

The plate is placed and fixed in position with bicortical screws. After this step is accomplished, the external fixator is removed or the MMF is released.

plate and pectoralis major myocutaneous pedicle flap

Harvest of graft

Radial forearm free flap is harvested in the standard fashion with the following considerations:

  • It is harvested of sufficient size to cover mucosal defect.
  • The distal portion of the skin paddle can be de-epithelized and folded medial to the plate, while the skin paddle is placed lateral to the plate. This will improve the integrity of the intraoral closure.
plate and radial forearm fasciocutaneous free flap

Insetting of flap soft tissue

The mucosa and submucosa of the intraoral wound can be closed with a single layer of 3-0 Vicryl in a mattress fashion. Usually the remaining gingiva is sutured above the flap.

A water tight closure is essential to avoid a salivary leak into the neck with subsequent infection in the surgical site and an orocutaneous fistula.

The flap is positioned into the cutaneous defect with care not to create undue torsion or tension within the pedicle.

It is crucial to wrap the plate with the de-epithelized paddle during the reconstruction to prevent post-operative plate exposure.

The skin closure is carried out in layered fashion using absorbable sutures eg. 3-0 Vicryl for the deep layers, and nylon for the skin.

lateral mandible and skin

Revascularization of flap

The detailed procedure for the revascularization is outside the scope of this surgery reference.

However, in short the procedure consists of the following steps:

  • Appropriate recipient vessels are selected in the neck and dissected so as to be available for anastomosis
  • The recipient and the donor vessels adventitia are cleaned under a microscope
  • Appropriate vessel geometry is assured and the vessels are placed into a microvascular clamp and anastomosis carried out using 9-0 nylon sutures
  • Vascularization is restored after both arterial and venous anastomoses are completed
radial forearm fasciocutaneous free flap

5. Aftercare following mandibular reconstruction


The use of the following perioperative medication is controversial. There is little evidence to make strong recommendations for postoperative medications.

  • Analgesia as necessary
  • Antibiotics (many surgeons use perioperative antibiotics). There is no clear advantage of any one antibiotic but evidence supports their use for 24h. The spectrum should be according to the oral bacterial flora, but the physician should be aware of changes that may occur after the use of radiation therapy.
  • Steroids may help with postoperative edema.
  • Regular perioral and oral wound care has to include disinfectant mouth rinse, lip care, etc.
  • Antibiotic ointment is used on the wounds for 72 hours
  • If a free flap is utilized for the reconstruction, 80-100 mg of aspirin/day is recommended.

Wound care

Remove any sutures from skin after approximately 7 days if nonresorbable sutures have been used. If the patient has had previous radiation, the sutures should be left in for 10 – 14 days.
Wound should be cleaned at least twice daily with hydrogen peroxide or mild soap and water. Moisturizing lotion should be used on the skin wounds to minimize excessive scarring after sutures are removed.
Avoid sun exposure and tanning to skin incisions for several months.


Diet depends on the reconstructive method. In general patients with superficial wounds can begin an oral diet within 48h postoperatively. Patients who have undergone a more significant surgery eg. flap reconstruction are kept NPO for 5-10 days and nutrition is administered via nasogastric tube. Oral feedings are begun using thickened liquids only after swallowing is assessed by the surgeon or the speech pathologist, and the risk of aspiration is minimal. Diet can be advanced as tolerated by the patient.

Clinical follow-up

Typically the patients are seen in clinical follow-up one week after discharge, and then on a weekly basis until such time the clinician determines that less frequent follow ups are needed.

Oral hygiene

Patients with intraoral incisions and/or wounds must be instructed in appropriate oral hygiene procedures. A soft toothbrush (dipped in warm water to make it softer) or water flosser should be used to clean the surfaces of the teeth. Chlorhexidine oral rinses should be prescribed and used at least 3 times a day to help sanitize the mouth. For larger debris, a 1:1 mixture of hydrogen peroxide/chlorhexidine can be used. The bubbling action of the hydrogen peroxide helps remove debris.

Reconstruction with free flap

When a free flap is utilized, it should be regularly monitored to ensure vascular integrity. Physical examination, assessing the flap color, turgidity, and capillary refill should be routine for at least the first 48 hours postoperatively. Hand-held Doppler probes can be used to assess blood flow. In case of doubt of the vitality of the flap, pin-prick assessment with a 25 gauge needle to look for bright red bleeding.. In cases of buried flaps, an implantable Doppler placed just distal to the venous anastomosis can be utilized.

Closed suction drains are routinely used at the donor site. The drain is removed when output is <30cc per 8 hour period, for three consecutive periods. Patients are typically discharged from the hospital 5-10 days after surgery, depending on their postoperative course and comorbidites. Close outpatient follow-up after discharge is recommended for evaluation of surgical sites.

Radial forearm free flap
The radial forearm free flap donor site should be closed with a skin graft and a bolster placed over the area. The arm is then cast or placed in a volar splint for 7 days prior to removal to ensure graft take.

Fibula free flap
After a fibula free flap, the donor lower leg should be cast with the ankle slightly dorsiflexed for 5 days. The patient can touch-down their body weight as tolerated. After the cast is removed they can ambulate and work with physical therapy to optimize leg function. A splint should be placed to keep the foot flexed when in bed. The routine use of a compression stocking for one month postoperatively will reduce the amount of lower leg dependent edema and aid in improved wound healing.

Scapula free flap
In the initial postoperative recovery, the ipsilateral arm should be positioned anteriorly and medially, usually supported on the patient’s abdomen by a pillow. Once the patient is ambulating, the arm is supported by a shoulder sling which supports the elbow and prevents inferior drift of the arm. Inpatient physical therapy is initiated once the patient is mobile. A post-operative physical therapy regimen is established with the patient to be maintained after hospital discharge. The sling is used for 2-3 weeks and physical therapy maintained until postoperative function is optimized, usually 4-6 weeks.

Iliac crest
The iiliac crest donor site requires that the patient not strain or lift heavy objects for at least 4 weeks to avoid hernia formation. Patients are typically limited to a bed or chair for 48h postoperatively and then physical therapy is begun with the patient initially ambulating with the aid of a walker or cane and progressing as tolerated.

Latissimus dorsi
No specific rehabilitation is necessary following the use of this flap.