Plastic surgery is the branch of surgery specialising in repairing and reconstructing missing or damaged tissue and skin, usually due to surgery, illness, injury or an abnormality present from birth.
The main aim of plastic surgery is to restore the function of tissues and skin to as close to normal as possible. Improving the appearance of body parts is an important, but secondary, objective of plastic surgery.
When plastic surgery is used
Plastic surgery can be used to repair:
- abnormalities caused by birth defects, such as a cleft lip and palate, webbed fingers and birthmarks
- areas damaged by the removal of cancerous tissue, such as from the face or breast
- extensive burns or other serious injuries, such as those sustained during motor vehicle accidents
Plastic surgery can also help a person recover their self-esteem and confidence following surgery for an abnormality that has existed from birth (congenital abnormality), an injury or illness.
Read more about why plastic surgery is used.
Plastic surgery techniques
Plastic surgery uses a wide range of techniques, depending on the condition being treated. There are three main groups of reconstructive methods:
- skin grafts – a procedure that transfers parts of healthy skin from an unaffected area of the body to replace lost or damaged skin, relying on the grafted area to keep the graft alive
- skin flap surgery – a procedure involving the transfer of a living piece of tissue from one part of the body to another, along with the blood vessels that keep it alive; it is called flap surgery because the healthy tissue usually remains partially attached to the body while it is repositioned
- tissue expansion – a procedure that enables the body to 'grow' extra skin by stretching surrounding tissue, this extra skin can then be used to help reconstruct the nearby area
As well as these main techniques, plastic surgeons use a wide range of other methods – such as vacuum closure (where suction is applied to the wound through a sterile piece of foam to help encourage better healing), camouflage make-up or cream and prosthetic devices (for example, artificial limbs).
Read more about how plastic surgery is performed.
As with any type of surgery, there are risks and complications associated with plastic surgery. The degree of risk will depend on a number of factors, including whether the surgery is to a small or large area of tissue, the surgeon's level of experience and the overall health of the person having the procedure.
Some procedures carry specific risks, but general risks include infection, scarring and the failure of the repaired area of skin due to a restricted blood supply.
Read more about the possible complications of plastic surgery.
Access to plastic surgery
Plastic surgery for reconstructive purposes is usually carried out free of charge on the NHS. However, availability can vary around the country and is determined by local clinical commissioning groups (CCGs).
Plastic surgery is performed by plastic surgeons who have received extensive training and belong to professional associations such as the British Association of Plastic Reconstructive and Aesthetic Surgeons (BAPRAS).
Most people are referred to NHS plastic surgeons by their GP or a specialist consultant they see about their condition.
Plastic surgery is used to repair damaged skin and tissue
Cosmetic surgery is a type of plastic surgery. However, it is not usually used to repair damaged tissue. Instead, it is carried out to change a healthy person’s appearance to achieve what they feel is a more desirable look.
It includes procedures such as:
Unlike reconstructive plastic surgery, cosmetic surgery is rarely available on the NHS.
Read more about cosmetic surgery.
Page last reviewed: 14/05/2013
Next review due: 14/05/2015