Background : Severe isolated upper extremity injuries are rarely lethal; however, they invariably are resource intensive, create significant disability, and promote resistance to a return to gainful employment. Appropriate soft tissue restoration is an essential component of any treatment protocol, and often requires a vascularized flap to protect the superficial neurovascular and musculotendinous structures. A basic schema to facilitate flap selection in the upper extremity is introduced.
Methods : The role of local muscle and fascia flaps or free tissue transfers for severe upper extremity injuries was retrospectively reviewed from a two-decade experience. Excluding digital injuries, primary treatment of soft tissue traumatic wounds requiring some form of vascularized flap occurred in 33 limbs in 31 patients. The choice of flap donor site, type, specific complications and benefits as related to the severity of injury, and the effect of timing of wound closure were compared.
Results : Initial coverage after significant upper extremity trauma in these 33 limbs required 16 local fascia flaps, 22 free flaps, 1 multistaged distant pedicled flap, and 1 local muscle flap. Flaps were selected in a nonrandom fashion on the basis of wound location, severity of injury, and flap availability. Complication rates were similar for local fascia and free flaps. The upper extremity could be divided into three regions that were differentiated according to the observed incidence of flap preference. Free flaps were more commonly used for hand and wrist wounds, or anywhere the defect was moderately large in size or extremely severe in overall injury. Local fascia flaps were a simpler option most applicable for the central upper limb. Local muscles as flaps were intentionally avoided to minimize any functional derangement.
Conclusion : A schema to guide flap selection for upper extremity coverage is introduced that is predicated on using the best available option. The shoulder girdle and axilla are reached by many local trunk muscle or fascia flaps. The central upper limb about the elbow often is conducive to coverage with specific local fascia flaps. The distal upper extremity may be best served by a free flap, as would any large wound in all upper limb regions.