How long does it take to recover from DIEP flap surgery?
DIEP flap surgery provides excellent cosmetic results when it comes to breast reconstruction surgery after mastectomy. Compared to reconstruction surgery with breast implants, the results of the flap procedure are very natural looking and completely permanent, and there is no risk of capsular contracture (hardening of the breasts) or implant ruptures. However, as with any other type of surgery or cosmetic procedure, DIEP flap breast reconstruction does have a moderate recovery period, and it is essential that the recovery process is taken seriously to ensure the best results.
In this article, we’ll tell you what to expect during recovery from the DIEP flap procedure, how long recovery takes, potential side effects to look out for, and what to do if you experience unusual pain or symptoms.
Click on a link to jump to that section:
Read what you can expect after having DIEP flap surgery.
Find out how long recovery usually takes after having DIEP flap surgery.
Read about how you can expect to feel after having DIEP flap reconstruction.
Read about the possible complications to be aware of so you can report any problems to your doctor.
Some discomfort is normal after DIEP flap surgery. Find out when you should contact a professional due to pain.
Read our tips on recovery safely after DIEP flap reconstruction.
What can I expect during DIEP flap surgery recovery?
You can expect to feel tired and sore for several weeks after DIEP flap reconstruction. This is normal and to be expected with any major surgical procedure. Your doctor will prescribe medication to manage pain and keep you as comfortable as possible.
It is not uncommon to have drainage tubes inserted in the surgical site during your surgery, and these will stay in place for several days after surgery to allow excess fluid to drain from the area. The surgical drains help to reduce swelling, which is perfectly normal after surgery as the affected tissue recovers.
Your recovery from this type of breast reconstruction will begin in the hospital. Depending on the unique needs of each individual patient, the time spent in the hospital will be anywhere between two and five days. After this, you will be able to continue recovery at home.
Before leaving the hospital, your surgeon will give you instructions on how to take care of your dressings, stitches and drains. You’ll also be given advice on massage techniques and physiotherapy exercises that can improve the suppleness of scar tissue. Initially, you might find it uncomfortable to get out of bed or to move between sitting and standing. Your doctor will advise you on how to move safely and comfortably while the abdominal tissues heal.
You can find out more about what to expect after DIEP flap surgery here.
Will I have bruises or swelling after surgery?
You can expect to see swelling and bruising at the surgical sites after DIEP flap surgery. This can last for up to eight weeks. It’s important to remember that it takes up to a full year for the body to completely heal and the new breast shape to settle. Scars will gradually fade over this time too. Patience is key; you won’t see the full results straight away, and you may opt to have additional reshaping of the breast mound or nipple reconstruction at a later date.
How long does recovery normally take?
It takes around six to eight weeks to recover adequately enough to resume normal activities. During this period, you should not drive, lift heavy objects or do any strenuous exercise. Doing so could damage recovering tissues or open up wounds, which could result in the need for additional surgery or treatment. For best results, it is vital that you take it easy in the first six to eight weeks.
After this initial recovery period, you’ll be able to get back to normal life while the breast tissue continues to recover. It will be up to one year until the tissues and scars are fully healed.
What are some side effects to be aware of during recovery?
You can expect to feel drowsy, tired and perhaps a little nauseous immediately following surgery as you recover from the anesthetic. In the first few days after surgery, you will probably still feel tired, and it’s normal to experience some pain. However, pain should be managed well with medication prescribed by your doctor. If you feel very acute pain, it is important to let your doctor know. Swelling of the surgical site is likely to occur and is normal. Scarring is also to be expected, and this will occur around the breasts, the belly button and the abdomen. Scars should fade in time, but it is possible for scar tissue to overgrow and result in raised tissue known as hypertrophic or even rarely keloid scars. Most women find that they cannot feel much sensation in the breast during recovery from DIEP surgery. Sometimes this sensation loss is permanent, but for many, some sensation will gradually return over time as nerves recover or grow. Skin sparing mastectomy cases have better sensation than delayed reconstruction as they still have some nerves in their natural breast skin.
How do I know whether I’m recovering correctly or not?
DIEP flap reconstruction, like any other type of surgical procedure, does not come without risks. You should be aware of potential complications so that you can report problems to your doctor as soon as possible:
Tissue (flap) loss
In rare cases, tissue taken from the belly to reconstruct the breast does not get enough circulation and dies off. Symptoms of this include cool skin, dark blue or black skin and open wounds. Consult your surgeon immediately if you notice these symptoms.
If you notice any lumps after surgery that do not go away on their own, consult your doctor. It could be caused by insufficient blood supply to the breast tissue. Lumps of this nature often are not noticeable until around six to eight months after surgery and are called fat necrosis.
Any abdominal surgery comes with the risk of hernia, but thankfully it is relatively low with DIEP flap surgery (source). If you notice a bulge in the abdomen, this could be a sign of hernia.
You can read more about possible complications of DIEP flap surgery here.
When should I see a professional if I’m worried I’m not recovering?
If you ever have any doubts about the way your surgical site is healing, or about the level of discomfort you’re in, contact your surgeon as soon as possible. They may be able to put your mind at ease via a telephone consultation or invite you for a consultation to check you over.
What do I do if I start experiencing pain?
Some discomfort is normal after DIEP flap breast reconstruction, but this should not be extreme and should be managed well with medication. If you experience severe pain, or pain suddenly gets worse, consult your doctor immediately.
How can I speed up the recovery process?
Exercising after DIEP surgery will help you to improve mobility following surgery, increase abdominal wall strength, and encourage circulation to aid healing of scar tissue. Before leaving the hospital, your surgeon, nurse or physiotherapist should provide you with some exercises and advice on how to safely get in and out of bed. It is vital that you follow these exercises to ensure you recover as quickly as possible. Remember that stretches should be gentle; if you feel any pain at all, you could be doing too much. Taking pain medication before doing your exercises will help to manage discomfort levels. To encourage scar healing, you can massage the scarred areas with the palm of your hand in a circular motion, but only once the incisions are fully healed. You should do this with a gentle, fragrance-free cream. In order to avoid swelling and reduce the risk of complications, be sure to avoid: – Lifting anything heavy for at least two weeks – Strenuous exercise – Vacuuming or ironing – Contact sports – Sitting for long periods of time or doing repetitive movements Stephen believes in an honest approach to consultation, offering realistic expectations to his DIEP Flap patients. If you want to find out more about DIEP Flap surgery or book yourself in for a consultation, you can contact Stephen McCulley’s private practice by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also call the clinic on 0115 962 4535.