Nipple-Areola Reconstruction

Nipple-Areola Reconstruction

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Breast cancer is second only to skin cancer as the most common cancer in women. According to the National Cancer Institute, an estimated that 266,120 women in the United States were diagnosed with breast cancer in 2018. [1] Many of these patients underwent breast conservation therapy. In 2017, according to the American Society of Plastic Surgery, over 106,000 breast reconstructions were performed, most with expanders and implants and over 19,000 with some type of flap reconstruction. [2]

Following mastectomy, breast reconstruction can provide significant psychosocial benefits for women. Because the reconstructed nipple is not easily moved, nipple reconstruction is usually reserved as the final step in breast reconstruction and is critical for providing an aesthetically pleasing breast. [3] Patients with loss of the nipple and areola from cancer excision, trauma, or congenital absence continue to experience psychological distress even long after breast mound reconstruction has taken place. Studies have shown that recreation of the nipple-areola complex has a high correlation with overall patient satisfaction and acceptance of body image. [4] Thus, completion of the breast reconstruction by creating a nipple-areola complex that matches the contralateral nipple in terms of size, shape, projection, and position adds significantly to the reconstructive result.

Numerous techniques have been developed to reconstruct the nipple following mastectomy. These include intradermal tattooing, variations of local tissue flaps, skin grafts, cartilage grafts, tissue-engineered structures, and nipple-sharing techniques. The most common problem following nipple reconstruction is a decrease in projection, or nipple flattening. Thus, methods of secondary nipple reconstruction as well as restoration of nipple projection have been reported.

For patient education resources, visit eMedicineHealth’s Women’s Health Center and Cancer Center. Also, see eMedicineHealth’s patient education articles Mastectomy, Breast Lumps and Pain, Breast Self-Exam, and Breast Cancer.

The history of nipple reconstruction parallels that of breast reconstruction with autologous tissue, from the development of the latissimus dorsi flap by Tanzini in 1906 to modern transverse rectus abdominus myocutaneous (TRAM) and microvascular-free TRAM breast reconstruction.

Historically, nipple-areola complex reconstruction has been considered a secondary procedure to the more important breast mound reconstruction. To optimize positioning of the nipple, surgeons generally recommend waiting until complete settling of the reconstructed breast before performing nipple reconstruction. However, when nipple reconstruction is delayed for months to years, final reconstruction is often never completed, as patients often opt to minimize their exposure to further surgical procedures. Most recently, some have advocated immediate nipple reconstruction in free TRAM flap reconstructions to minimize operative procedures and to achieve earlier completion of the breast reconstruction. [5]

Nipple reconstruction techniques have evolved significantly over the years. From simple tattooing to the more technologically advanced, although rarely available, tissue engineering, [6] today’s techniques are able to provide long-lasting, satisfactory reconstruction with minimal morbidity.

Nipple-areola reconstruction represents the completion of the breast restorative process and has significant psychological implications for women who undergo mastectomy. Nipple size, position, projection, and color are determining factors in the aesthetic symmetry of the reconstruction, qualifying an otherwise nondescript flesh mound as the new breast. Complete nipple-areola reconstruction with tattoo can visually draw attention away from the scars on the reconstructed breast mound. In addition, autologous flap breast reconstruction following skin-sparing mastectomy can usually be designed so that the entire flap skin paddle, along with the scar, is tattooed as an areola.

The benefit of nipple-areola reconstruction is supported by the findings of a retrospective psychological survey comparing the level of satisfaction of women who underwent breast reconstruction with or without nipple-areola reconstruction; a highly significant correlation was seen between level of satisfaction and presence of the nipple-areola complex. Artists and anatomists consider the nipple-areola complex an essential and defining component of the breast aesthetic unit, and the physical characteristics of the nipple gain importance as the breast mound decreases in size. Reconstruction of position, size, shape, and color of the native nipple-areola complex currently are attainable goals; functional restoration of erectile ability and erogenous sensation are goals for future reconstructive surgeons.

Nipple-areola anatomy is remarkably variable in dimension, texture, and color across ethnic groups and among individuals. Moreover, an appreciable difference often exists in the two nipple-areola complexes in the same patient. The presence of an elevated structure in the center of a pigmented area on the breast mound usually represents a nipple, yet wide variability exists as to what constitutes the normal dimensions of the complex. In general, an aesthetically balanced B-C cup breast has an areola diameter of 4.2-5 cm, with the nipple diameter and projection or height equal to one third to one fourth of the areola diameter.

The central position of the nipple cylinder in the areola also has significant variability, ranging from one fourth to one half of the radius off-center.

Nipple projection results from the primary location of the mammary ducts in the central portion of the nipple complex. This arrangement produces a semi-rigid structure with a significantly more fibrotic element than the soft and pliable surrounding areola. The contractile properties of the areola also contribute to the gradual change in nipple projection obtained with direct or neural stimuli.

Most methods of nipple reconstruction can be used whether the breast has been reconstructed with a flap or alloplastic materials. Flaps generally provide more mobile tissue and make it easier to achieve nipple bulk and projection. Previous scars from the mastectomy or previous biopsies need to be accounted for in terms of flap design so as not to compromise blood supply to the reconstructed nipple.

No general contraindications exist to reconstruction of the nipple-areola complex. However, evaluation of each patient’s specific medical condition and surgical requirements may delay or contraindicate the procedure on a case-by-case basis. For example, if the breast mound reconstruction presents with poor skin/soft tissue quality (as with postmastectomy radiation), nipple-areola complex reconstruction may be associated with increased complication risks and compromise in overall reconstruction outcome.

Cancer Stat Facts: Common Cancer Sites. National Cancer Institute. Available at Accessed: 2019 Jan 31.

2017 Plastic Surgery Statistics Report. American Society of Plastic Surgeons. Available at 2018; Accessed: 2019 Jan 31.

Few JW, Marcus JR, Casas LA. Long-term predictable nipple projection following reconstruction. Plast Reconstr Surg. 1999 Oct. 104(5):1321-4. [Medline].

Evans KK, Rasko Y, Lenert J. The use of calcium hydroxylapatite for nipple projection after failed nipple-areolar reconstruction: early results. Ann Plast Surg. 2005 Jul. 55(1):25-9; discussion 29. [Medline].

Williams EH, Rosenberg LZ, Kolm P, de la Torre JI, Fix RJ. Immediate nipple reconstruction on a free TRAM flap breast reconstruction. Plast Reconstr Surg. October 2007. 120:1115-24.

Cao YL, Lach E, Kim TH. Tissue-engineered nipple reconstruction. Plast Reconstr Surg. 1998 Dec. 102(7):2293-8. [Medline].

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Haslik W, Nedomansky J, Hacker S, et al. Objective and subjective evaluation of donor-site morbidity after nipple sharing for nipple areola reconstruction. J Plast Reconstr Aesthet Surg. 2015 Feb. 68(2):168-74. [Medline].

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Riccio CA, Zeiderman MR, Chowdhry S, Wilhelmi BJ. Review of nipple reconstruction techniques and introduction of v to y technique in a bilateral wise pattern mastectomy or reduction mammaplasty. Eplasty. 2015. 15:e11. [Medline]. [Full Text].

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Hyza P, Streit L, Vesely J, et al. New Technique of Immediate Nipple Reconstruction During Immediate Autologous DIEP or MS-TRAM Breast Reconstruction. Ann Plast Surg. 2014 Aug 15. [Medline].

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Yang CE, Park KH, Lew DH, Roh TS, Lee DW. Dimensional changes in reconstructed nipples: autologous versus prosthetic breast reconstruction. Ann Surg Treat Res. 2019 Jan. 96 (1):8-13. [Medline]. [Full Text].

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Hyman JB, Newman MI, Gayle LB. Composite syringe dressing after nipple-areola reconstruction. Plast Reconstr Surg. 2005 Jul. 116(1):340-1. [Medline].

Gerber B, Krause A, Reimer T, et al. Skin-sparing mastectomy with conservation of the nipple-areola complex and autologous reconstruction is an oncologically safe procedure. Ann Surg. 2003 Jul. 238(1):120-7. [Medline].

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Yoon Sun Chun, MD Assistant Professor, Department of Surgery, Harvard Medical School; Associate Surgeon, Department of Surgery, Division of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, Brigham and Women’s Hospital; Staff Surgeon, Department of Surgery, Division of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, Faulkner Hospital

Yoon Sun Chun, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Medical Association, American Society of Plastic Surgeons, Massachusetts Medical Society, Association of Women Surgeons, Johns Hopkins Medical and Surgical Association

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Francisco Talavera, PharmD, PhD Adjunct Assistant Professor, University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Pharmacy; Editor-in-Chief, Medscape Drug Reference

Disclosure: Received salary from Medscape for employment. for: Medscape.

James Neal Long, MD, FACS Founder of Magnolia Plastic Surgery; Former Associate Professor of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, Division of Plastic Surgery, Children’s Hospital and Kirklin Clinics, University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Medicine; Section Chief of Plastic, Reconstructive, Hand, and Microsurgery, Birmingham Veterans Affairs Medical Center

James Neal Long, MD, FACS is a member of the following medical societies: Alpha Omega Alpha, American College of Surgeons, American Medical Association, American Society of Plastic Surgeons, Plastic Surgery Research Council, Sigma Xi, Southeastern Society of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeons, Southeastern Surgical Congress

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Dennis P Orgill, MD, PhD Professor of Surgery, Harvard Medical School; Assistant in Surgery (Plastic Surgery), Boston Children’s Hospital

Dennis P Orgill, MD, PhD is a member of the following medical societies: American Association of Plastic Surgeons, American College of Surgeons, American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering, American Society for Reconstructive Microsurgery, American Society of Plastic Surgeons, Association of Academic Chairmen in Plastic Surgery, Hidradenitis Suppurativa Foundation, Plastic Surgery Research Council, Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine International Society, Wound Healing Society

Disclosure: Received consulting fee from Integra LifeSciences, Inc for consulting; Received consulting fee from Integra LifeSciences, Inc. for program and training services agreement; Received grant/research funds from Integra LifeSciences, Inc. for clinical research; Received grant/research funds from KCI for basic science research; Received grant/research funds from KCI for clinical research; Received consulting fee from DSM for consulting; Received consulting fee from Musculoskeletal Transplant Foundatio.

Pankaj Tiwari, MD Assistant Professor, Division of Plastic Surgery, Ohio State University College of Medicine

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Nipple-Areola Reconstruction

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