Background: Free tissue transfer has become a mainstay in breast reconstruction, with the internal mammary system frequently used as the recipient vessels. Sacrificing the internal mammary artery, however, eliminates the potential to use this vessel as a coronary artery bypass conduit in the future and potentially increases recipient-site morbidity. The authors' goal was to evaluate the learning curve and effectiveness of their use of the internal mammary intercostal perforators for microsurgical breast reconstruction. Methods: The authors reviewed one surgeon's consecutive series of 100 abdominal adipocutaneous perforator flap breast reconstructions (72 patients) from July of 2005 through January of 2007. The internal mammary perforators were used as recipient vessels in 23 flaps, the traditional internal mammary vessels were used in 66, and the thoracodorsal vessels were used in 11. To see if there was a learning curve, flaps were analyzed in five consecutive cohorts of 20. Results: A learning curve was shown: internal mammary perforators were used in 5 percent of the first cohort and 45 percent of flaps in the final cohort. Flap survival was 99 percent; the one failure occurred in a traditional internal mammary flap reconstruction. Small palpable areas of fat necrosis were observed in one internal mammary perforator flap (4.3 percent) and in five traditional internal mammary or thoracodorsal flaps (6.5 percent). Conclusions: In all the authors' cohorts, internal mammary perforator vessels were used safely without increasing the incidence of flap failure or fat necrosis seen with the traditional approach. The learning curve for this technique resulted in increased use of these internal mammary perforators, indicating that operator experience is critical.
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