How Does Skin Grafting Work?
- What is skin grafting?
- Why would you need a skin graft?
- What is recovery like after skin grafting?
- What are the best questions to ask my doctor about skin grafting?
A skin graft takes healthy skin from one part of the body that’s normally covered by clothing and uses it to cover a wound or burn, holding it in place with a dressing and stitches. This procedure is very helpful for patients who need cosmetic or reconstructive surgery to repair skin loss or damaged skin.
What is Skin Grafting?
Skin grafting is a surgery that seeks to repair tissue damage by replacing it with healthy skin from another part of the body. Patients are given a local or general anesthetic, depending on the size of the graft and its location. The surgery itself takes anywhere from one to three hours. Usually, patients can heal over a series of days in their homes.
This procedure is typically done in a hospital and consists of:
- Removing damaged tissue
- Cleaning and preparing the site for the graft
- Selecting a donor site on the body where healthy tissue could be removed
- Harvesting the tissue to make a graft for the damaged area
- A few small slits may be cut into the graft to prevent fluid collection
- Surgically attaching the graft to allow it to heal with staples, stitches, or glue
- Covering the area with a sterile dressing and/or a splint to protect the graft
There are two primary types of skin grafts:
- A partial or split-thickness skin graft is where a very thin layer of skin is shaved off the donation site
- A full-thickness skin graft takes the top later along with the layers below
Both of these are usually taken from an area of the body that easily heals, such as the thighs, calves, or buttocks. These areas are also easily hidden under clothing, so any lasting scars go generally unseen.
Skin grafts can also be temporary or permanent A permanent skin graft can be taken from the patient and should heal on its own. However, there are also temporary grafts that cover the cleaned wound surface temporarily until the permanent graft is placed.
This could include a temporary allograft, which is human cadaver skin donated for surgical use. Because the skin is the largest organ of the human body, this is considered an organ donation. You could also receive a temporary xenograft, which is skin taken from animals, most often from a pig. The doctor may suture or staple the graft in place and cover it with a bandage.
Why Would You Need a Skin Graft?
Any wounds that fail to heal put your health at risk. Since the skin protects you from a loss of fluids, helps regulate temperature, and prevents bacteria from getting inside the body, it’s a pretty important one to keep healthy.
When the skin is compromised in some way, a skin graft can help this important organ recover. The goal of skin graft surgery is to provide a temporary covering for some sort of wound that eventually heals and becomes permanent, new skin.
Patients suffering from very large wounds, ulcers that won’t heal, or infection could benefit from a skin graft. Skin grafting is very helpful for helping a large wound or burn to heal completely. A skin graft can also help treat a scar and make it less visible. Patients suffering from cancer may receive a skin graft. This includes post-mastectomy patients receiving cosmetic reconstruction for breast cancer.
What is Recovery Like After Skin Grafting?
Some patients may go home the same day after a skin graft, although if your procedure is later in the day you may stay overnight. It’s also not uncommon for the doctor to want a 24-hour period of observation in the hospital after skin grafting. Your hospital stay depends on the size and location of the graft as well as your overall health.
After the procedure, you may wake up with a sore throat if a breathing tube was placed in the windpipe during the surgery. You will be groggy and will need someone to drive you home and potentially stay a few days to help with minor chores.
If it’s a permanent graft, you will have bandages on both the donor and grafted site. You may go home with a vacuum-assisted closure dressing connected to a machine to help regulate pressure around the wound.
You’ll be sent home with aftercare instructions that you should follow carefully. You may experience some discomfort at the surgery site, such as bruising, redness, or swelling. You will have pain medication to help with any pain you feel.
Typically, the instructions after skin grafting include:
- Don’t smoke because it slows healing
- Drink lots of fluids to speed the healing process
- Leave bandages in place unless instructed by your provider
- If you are to change the bandages, wash your hands before and after
- Don’t allow your incisions to get dirty and keep them out of the water
- Bathe only as directed by your doctor
- Don’t pick at any scabs that form
- Keep the surgery site out of the sun
- Avoid strenuous exercise for three to four weeks or as your doctor orders
- Watch for increased pain after 24-hours, fever, red streaks near the surgery site
Once your skin has healed you will have additional instructions about caring for the site. While new blood vessels typically start appearing about 36-hours after the surgery, grafted skin lacks the oil or sweat glands the rest of your skin has. To compensate, you should apply lotion or mineral oil to the repair site each day for several months.
Your doctor will have one or more follow-up visits to check on healing. If there are staples or stitches, they will be removed as part of the process, which generally, takes about four to six weeks for patients to fully heal.
What Are the Best Questions to Ask My Doctor About Skin Grafting?
It’s important to feel comfortable with your doctor before undergoing skin grafting. Some of the best questions to ask include:
- Why is skin grafting the best treatment option for me?
- What type of skin graft procedure do I need?
- What post-surgery restrictions will I have?
- What are the risks of skin grafting surgery?
The team at Freedom Health & Wellness is dedicated to your health and well-being. We are very experienced in the skin grafting procedure as well as other methods for healing the skin. Contact us for an appointment today.