Staged Skin and Subcutaneous Excision for Lymphedema: A Favorable Report of Long-Term Results

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Numerous surgical procedures have been proposed for the management of lymphedema. The postoperative results vary, and unfortunately none of the procedures are curative. As a result, some degree of recurrence of leg edema is seen in all patients postoperatively. Reported here is a long-term follow-up of patients with lower extremity lymphedema managed by skin and subcutaneous tissue excision.

Thirty-eight patients (6 male; 32 female) with lower extremity lymphedema have been followed up for an average of 14 (3 to 27) years after staged subcutaneous excisions performed beneath skin flaps. Seven patients had been treated previously by other procedures. Of the 38 lymphedema patients, 10 patients developed edema after pelvic or groin ablative surgery, radiation therapy, or both.

Results were documented by various methods: physical examination, circumferential measurements, volume displacement, serial photography, lymphoscintigraphy, and patient survey. Of these, it is believed that photographs are the easiest and as representative as any other method, all of which have great variability. Of the 38 patients, 30 patients had significant and long-lasting reduction in extremity size associated with improved function and extremity contour. Episodes of recurrent cellulitis were reduced or completely eliminated. No differences in the long-term results were seen in patients with acquired as opposed to congenital lymphedema. Men did not have as much improvement as women. Two patients had no change in leg swelling, and six patients (three men) had progressive swelling after surgery. Partial wound separation occurred immediately postoperatively in one patient, and three patients had loss (less than 2 cm) of the skin flap, all in the ankle region. None of these instances required further surgery, and no other significant complications were encountered.

Staged skin and subcutaneous excision beneath skin flaps appears to provide long-lasting improvement for lower extremity lymphedema, regardless of cause, in the majority of patients treated. (Plast. Reconstr. Surg. 102: 1486, 1998.)

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