What is reconstructive surgery?

Reconstructive surgery refers to plastic surgery which is performed on body parts which are abnormal, either in terms of their shape (disfigured) or function (dysfunctional). Such abnormalities may arise because of:

  • Congenital defects (defects at birth);
  • Development abnormalities;
  • Trauma (e.g. burns);
  • Infectious disease; and
  • Tumours.

Reconstructive surgery is usually performed with the aim of improving the function of a body part. However, reconstructive surgery may improve functionality and the appearance of a body part at the same time. For example, blepharoplasty (eyelid surgery) is normally considered cosmetic, but can improve function where eyelids droop severely and obscure an individual’s vision.

Indications for reconstructive surgery

There are a number of medical indications for reconstructive surgery. While these surgeries are undertaken with the aim of improving the function of the targeted body parts, in many cases they also alter and normalise appearance as well.

Reconstructive surgery may be indicated in the following cases:

  • Breast surgery: May be medically indicated where disfigurations occur following mastectomy (breast removal);
  • Lip and palate surgery: Indicated in cases of congenital deformity, where an infant has a cleft lip or palate (partially formed lips or mouth). These conditions may cause impaired feeding, speech or abnormal dental development;
  • Ear surgery: May be indicated when deformities to one or both ears impair hearing;
  • Hand surgery: May be medically indicated to correct the function of deformed hands, remove additional fingers or correct webbing;
  • Scar revision: Surgery may be medically indicated to correct scarring which causes restricted movement, including from burns;
  • Skin cancer treatment: To remove cancerous lesions affecting the skin and underlying tissues, with the aim of improving treatment outcomes. Individuals who are treated with reconstructive plastic surgery to remove skin lesions often also undergo radiotherapy.

Considerations for individuals considering reconstructive surgery

Reconstructive surgeryAlthough reconstructive surgery aims to treat disfigurement, it remains important to consider issues such as self-esteem and whether or not plastic surgery and appearance change will lead to quality of life improvements. In the United Kingdom 1.3 million people live with severe facial and body deformities and there are many non-surgical interventions which help these individuals live with, rather than change their appearance. For example Changing Faces, a support group for individuals with disfigurements, provides advice on how to improve communication and relax in social situations.

Psychosocial support is critical whether or not individuals with disfigurements decide to undergo plastic surgery and individuals who also receive this support are more satisfied with the outcomes of their surgery.

In some cases parents will have to make decisions regarding whether or not to treat a child’s disfigurement with reconstructive surgery. It is important that parents receive comprehensive information about the risks and benefits of the surgery they are considering for their child. It is recommended that parents talk to a range of medical professionals (e.g. plastic surgeon, paediatrician, psychologist) when making a decision about reconstructive plastic surgery for their child.


  1. What is the difference between cosmetic and reconstructive surgery? [online]. Arlington Heights, IL: American Society of Plastic Surgeons; 2010 [cited 5 May 2010]. Available from: URL link
  2. Reconstructive plastic surgery procedures at-a-glance [online]. Arlington Heights, IL: American Society of Plastic Surgeons; 2010 [cited 5 May 2010]. Available from: URL link
  3. Clarke A. Communicating with confidence when you have a disfigurement [online]. London: Changing Faces; 2007 [cited 10 May 2010]. Available from: URL link
  4. Procedures overview [online]. St Leonards, NSW: Australian Society of Plastic Surgeons; 2009 [cited 2 May 2010]. Available from: URL link 

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