general reconstruction


Type: Case report
Published: 15-03-2019

Is free tissue transfer following necrotising fasciitis safe? A case report and review

Daniel Lee John Bunker BE (Aerospace)(Hons) MBBS(Hons) MS,1 Scott Ferris MBS FRACS1


Plastic, Hand and Faciomaxillary Surgery
The Alfred Hospital
55 Commercial Road
Melbourne, Victoria, 3004


Name: Daniel Lee John Bunker
Address: Department of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery
Flinders Medical Centre
Flinders Drive
Bedford Park, South Australia, 5041
Email: [email protected]
Phone: +61 3 9076 2000
Citation: Bunker DLJ, Ferris S. Is free tissue transfer following necrotising fasciitis safe? A case report and review. Aust J Plast Surg. 2019;2(1):99–102.
Accepted for publication: 17 August 2018
Copyright © 2019. Authors retain their copyright in the article. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution Licence which permits unrestricted use, distribution and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

Section: General reconstruction


Necrotising fasciitis is a life-threatening infection that requires radical debridement, usually accompanied by antibiotic therapy and physiologic support. Patients are often left with disabling or disfiguring soft tissue defects. Traditionally, simple reconstructive methods such as skin grafting and local flap coverage have been used to address these defects, due to concerns that free tissue transfer may increase the risk of thrombosis where there has been recent infection and inflammation. We argue that once the infection has been cleared and the patient regains physiological stability, free tissue transfer is a viable reconstructive option that may provide better functional and cosmetic results in selected cases.

Keywords: necrotising fasciitis, debridement, reconstructive surgical procedures, surgical flaps


A previously healthy 32-year-old male presented with a three-day history of tenderness and spreading erythema of the left arm after a fall. He was septic on admission, requiring transfer to the intensive care unit for inotrope support. Initial examination revealed an erythematous and tender forearm with soft compartments. White cell count on admission was 11x109/L with a CRP of 279.

The following morning he remained septic, requiring ongoing inotropes and with spreading erythema and new skin mottling. He was taken to theatre where necrotic fascia and pus at the medial aspect of the arm extending down the medial intermuscular septum to the neurovascular bundle was noted. Radical surgical debridement was performed and temporary cover achieved with negative pressure wound therapy. Microbiological analysis revealed group A streptococcus and Staphylococcus aureus. Triple intravenous antibiotic therapy was administered in consultation with the infectious diseases team.

Serial debridements and dressing changes were performed on days two, four, eight, 11 and 14 post-admission, leaving a large defect over the volar forearm and medial arm with exposure of the brachial artery, median nerve, ulnar nerve and biceps tendon insertion (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Defect after final debridement

Figure 2. Reconstruction of proximal defect with anterolateral thigh free flap

On day 17 post-admission, with a systemically stable patient and serial negative microbiological tests on wound cultures, definitive reconstruction with an ipsilateral anterolateral thigh (ALT) fasciocutaneous free flap and split skin graft was performed (Figure 2). Priority was given to coverage of the neurovascular structures, biceps tendon and elbow flexural crease. The radial artery and venae commitantes were explored under brachoradialis in a freshly dissected plane and confirmed to be suitable recipients under microscopic examination prior to raising the flap. Arterial anastomosis was performed with 9-0 nylon sutures and venous drainage accomplished with anastomoses using venous couplers. All anastomoses were end-to-end. Follow-up one month after reconstruction revealed a movement range of -100 to 1000 at the elbow and 500 to 750 at the wrist (Figure 3).

Figure 3. One month post reconstruction

Discussion and review

Wound closure after necrotising fasciitis is most commonly achieved with skin grafting, local flaps or amputation. Free tissue transfer is less commonly performed. One concern has been the potential for thrombosis due to a systemic inflammatory state with elevated levels of circulating pro-thrombotic mediators that may predispose the affected area to anastomotic occlusion. A hallmark of these necrotising soft tissue infections is thrombosis of the small vessels as a result of endotoxin and inflammatory mediator release, leading to necrosis—seen pathologically as microvascular occlusion, arteritis and intimal thickening.1,2

A number of documented cases report free flap reconstruction following necrotising fasciitis (Table 1). The largest published series reports on 12 successful free flap reconstructions within a population of 224 necrotising fasciitis cases.3 It should be noted that in this series most of the defects were small and the mean number of debridements prior to definitive coverage was 1.1. This contrasts with the experience at our institution where severe soft tissue infections are treated by serial debridement. We consider a clean wound bed and negative microbiology as prerequisites to definitive reconstruction.

The use of a fasciocutaneous free tissue transfer tends to replace what is lost due to necrotising fasciitis. The ALT has proven to be a reliable reconstructive option with minimal donor site morbidity and is the most commonly used donor site. For larger and more central locations, latissimus dorsi musculocutaneous and chimeric free flaps have been used to cover chest and abdominal wall defects.

Table 1: Free flap reconstruction after necrotising fasciitis
Paper Total free flaps Recipient sites Donor sites
Whetzel et al12 1 Cervicofacial Anterolateral thigh
Duman et al5 1 Abdomen Latissimus dorsi
Yuen et al8 1 Hand Rectus 
Barbosa et al4 1 Chest Latissimus dorsi
Hankins et al9 1 Hand Anterolateral thigh
Ryssel et al7 6 Extremity Unspecified
Pyon et al13 1 Upper limb Thoracodorsal artery perforator
Jordon et al11 1 Cervicofacial Parascapular
Deyeliannis et al6 1 chimeric Abdomen Chimeric anterolateral thigh/fascia lata and rectus femoris
Reinbold et al10 1 Upper limb Deep inferior epigastric artery
Gawaziuk et al3 12 10 extremity, one head and neck, one perineal 10 anterolateral thigh, one latisimus dorsi, one radial forearm


This case highlights the successful use of free tissue transfer following necrotising fasciitis in order to facilitate coverage of neurovascular structures and bare tendon, while minimising the chance of long-term contracture. While traditional reconstructive options involve skin grafts or amputation, free tissue transfer provides a viable option that may optimise functional and aesthetic results. When performing such procedures we suggest a clinically clean wound with negative tissue culture, a physiologically stable patient where the systemic inflammatory response has been resolved and, wherever possible, anastomoses performed outside of the immediate zone of infection with recipient vessels ideally identified in a virgin plane and examined prior to raising the flap.


The authors have no financial or commercial conflicts of interest to disclose.


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