BACKGROUND: The sensory recovery of the breast remains an undervalued aspect of autologous breast reconstruction. The aim of this study was to evaluate the effect of nerve coaptation on the sensory recovery of the breast following DIEP flap breast reconstruction and to assess the associations of length of follow-up and timing of the reconstruction. METHODS: A prospective comparative study was conducted of all patients who underwent either innervated or noninnervated DIEP flap breast reconstruction and returned for follow-up between September of 2015 and July of 2017. Nerve coaptation was performed to the anterior cutaneous branch of the third intercostal nerve. Semmes-Weinstein monofilaments were used for sensory testing of the native skin and flap skin. RESULTS: A total of 48 innervated DIEP flaps in 36 patients and 61 noninnervated DIEP flaps in 45 patients were tested at different follow-up time points. Nerve coaptation was significantly associated with lower monofilament values in all areas of the reconstructed breast (adjusted difference, -1.2; p < 0.001), which indicated that sensory recovery of the breast was significantly better in innervated compared with noninnervated DIEP flaps. For every month of follow-up, the mean monofilament value decreased by 0.083 in innervated flaps (p < 0.001) and 0.012 in noninnervated flaps (p < 0.001). Nerve coaptation significantly improved sensation in both immediate and delayed reconstructions. CONCLUSIONS: This study demonstrated that nerve coaptation in DIEP flap breast reconstruction is associated with a significantly better sensory recovery in all areas of the reconstructed breast compared with noninnervated flaps. The length of follow-up was significantly associated with the sensory recovery.
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