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What Is Reconstructive Lip Surgery?

By C. Mitchell
Updated May 17, 2024
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Reconstructive lip surgery is a kind of plastic surgery performed to reverse lip damage caused by genetic abnormality, injury, or disease. Its primary goal is to return problem lips to fully functional form. Some aesthetics are necessarily involved to ensure that patients come out of the procedure looking whole, but the surgery is never designed to improve the lips’ appearance. Rather, it is centered on repair and restoration of some defined problem.

Most reconstructive lip surgery falls within the sphere of plastic surgery. There are two main types of plastic surgery: elective procedures and medically necessary procedures. Reconstructive plastic surgery, whether of the lips or not, always falls within the second category.

Patients referred to reconstructive lip surgery typically have deformities or have suffered injuries to their lips such that their mouths do not work properly. A cleft palate is a very common medical condition that often requires reconstructive surgery to repair. Lip cancers, tumors of the lip and mouth, and trauma accident cases are also frequently referred to plastic surgeons.

There are two primary goals of the surgery: first, to repair the problem lip such that the mouth is once again able to function properly, including the ability to speak, and second to restore the patient’s face. Many lip problems are very disfiguring. Patients are often unable to speak with clarity and are unable to hide their afflictions from the outside world. The mouth, unlike other parts of the body, cannot easily be hidden from view, and problems can affect everything from swallowing to smiling.

Procedures differ, both by doctor and condition, but most reconstructive lip surgery is done with skin grafts. The lips are unique in terms of skin composition, which can make matching grafts from other parts of the body very challenging. Most of the time, doctors use grafts from the insides of the cheek in order to most closely match tissue types. Cultures from healthy lip skin can sometimes be used to cultivate new grafts, as well. This process is expensive and often very lengthy, however, which makes it less common.

Most surgical treatments like lip reconstructions are performed in plastic surgeons’ offices. Depending on the extent of the damage or injury, the procedure can often be done under only local anesthetic, and patients can go home immediately after it is done. Sometimes the surgery treatments are done in hospitals, particularly if the patients are receiving other care simultaneously. This is often the case with accident victims: they are brought to the hospital from the scene, and all of their ailments are treated at once by the specialists on staff.

Reconstructive lip surgery is also one of the most common reconstructive treatments provided by medical aid teams visiting impoverished or developing communities, particularly where cleft palates are concerned. Cleft palates are a relatively common birth defect. The defect is fixed soon after birth as a matter of course in most developed regions. In communities without reliable medical care or established hospital systems, however, cleft palates often go untreated, which can have profound impacts.

Children and adults with this condition are often unable to receive proper nutrition, and are at risk for a range of infections. Doctors who journey to more impoverished communities on medical missions routinely perform cleft palate lip repairs, whether or not plastic surgery is their main specialty. Reconstructive plastic surgery on palate conditions is relatively easy for doctors to learn and can make a big difference.

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