The below question is answered by the Charleston breast surgeons at The Center for Natural Breast Reconstruction.
How long does it take for nerves to recover and for full skin sensation to return after reconstructive surgery?
During any surgery, numerous sensory nerves, generally too small to have names, are invariably cut. Depending on the extent of the surgery, this can result in numbness of the skin or other areas. This is not typically regarded as a complication, but rather an essentially inescapable result of making an incision in the body. Most of the little divided nerves literally “wither away,” and other sensory nerves eventually grow in to take their place, restoring sensation once again. This process can take anywhere from a few months to 1 – 2 years. There is no limit on how late sensation can be regained, but the longer, beyond 1 – 2 years numbness, lasts, the less likely it is that sensation will spontaneously return. Occasionally, numbness can persist indefinitely, although this is uncommon.
In addition to numbness, other symptoms such as discomfort, hypersensitivity, or chronic pain can also result as a consequence of nerve damage following any surgery. Thankfully, these complications are much rarer then numbness. While it can be very difficult to ascertain exactly what mechanism is causing discomfort, some possibilities include traction or tethering of nerves by scar tissue, or formation of a “neuroma,” which is a painful little ball of tissue at the end of a regenerating nerve.
Nerves irritated by adjacent scarring may be helped by massage, injection of local anesthetics, or simply the passage of time. Neuromas, which are thankfully extremely rare following breast surgery, usually result in pain when pressure is applied to a very specific location, and can be much harder to treat. Surprisingly, additional surgery is often not effective in treating these rare cases of chronic pain, and referral to a Pain Therapist for injectable nerve blocks may be the most effective option.
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