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Do not overtighten antihelix horizontal mattress sutures to avoid the hidden helix.
Take full-thickness cartilage bites including the anterior perichondrium to avoid cartilage pull-through of mattress sutures and relapse.
Avoid external canal narrowing by placing posteriorly oriented concha-mastoid sutures or excising cartilage.
Cartilage splitting or scoring techniques run the risk of visible cartilage irregularities or sharp edges.
Do not rely on skin excision to hold ear position.
Auricular proportions and defining characteristics of the pinna have been well documented and defined in the literature. Although the function of the pinna in regards to hearing is minor, the social and psychological impact of having protruding or prominent ears is profound. This anatomic variation occurs in approximately 5% of the population, and usually by school age, children become very self-conscious of their “Dumbo or mouse ears.” Correcting this deformity can help children gain self-esteem and prevent social ridicule.
Otoplasty surgery is usually directed toward 2 specific areas, the conchal bowl, which is often hypertrophied, and the anti-helix, which may be flattened and/or underdeveloped, or a combination of both. The aesthetically pleasing auricle projects approximately 20° to 30° from the skull (Fig. 1). The length of the ear is approximately 55 to 60 mm when fully developed, and the width is approximately 55% of the length. Furthermore, along its vertical axis, the auricle sits a gentle 20° posterior.
One of the better objective measurements is the helical to scalp distance, which is measured at 3 points, the superior point of the helical rim, the midpoint of the helix, and the lobule (Fig. 2). These distances range from 10 to 12 mm, 16 to 20 mm, and 20 to 22 mm, respectively. In bilateral otoplasty, these measurements serve as a guide for the surgeon, and documentation of these distances is important in creating symmetry. In the unilateral otoplasty, measurements from the aesthetically better ear can be used to gauge setback of the protruding one.
Currently, 2 schools of thought predominate regarding otoplastic surgery summarized broadly as cartilage cutting and cartilage sparring techniques. The former involves removal of cartilage and the scoring of cartilage, whereas the latter involves contouring by placement of either permanent or absorbable sutures. Cartilage cutting techniques tend to be favored in Europe and are liked due to the durability of the correction over time, although there exists a higher risk of anterior cartilage irregularities.
Typically, the otoplasty is performed with wedge excisions, scoring, abrasion, and cartilaginous incisions on either the anterior or the posterior cartilage surface in an attempt to counteract the spring of the unfurled antihelix. In North America, cartilage sparring techniques predominate, namely the Furnas
or variations on these techniques. The advantages include less scaring, allowance of easy suture adjustment, preservation of the cartilage framework, and prevention of contour irregularities. Where it may fall short is with stability of the operation over time.
Fortunately, complications of otoplasty are relatively uncommon and can usually be avoided with meticulous preoperative, intraoperative, and post-operative care from both the patient and surgeon perspective. The surgeon must be familiar with the range of complications and must appropriately counsel the patient before surgery about these risks, in addition to being ready to confidently handle them if they arise. The cumulative rate of early complication has been cited from 0% to 8.4%, with information on late complications varying greatly between 0% and 47.3%.
Granted, the literature is varied and most studies are retrospective reviews of surgical cases for individual institutions or surgeons. Most important to the otoplastic surgeon is a depth of understanding of the various techniques and complications so that the best result is obtained (Table 1).
These complications typically occur within hours to days after the procedure.
The external ear is supplied by multiple arterial sources. This extensive vasculature makes it a resilient candidate for multiple surgical approaches (Fig. 3). The blood supply to the external ear is derived mainly from branches of the external carotid artery, namely the superficial temporal artery and the posterior auricular artery.
To minimize intraoperative bleeding, the skin should be injected with 1% lidocaine with 1:100,000 epinephrine before incision. During the procedure, great care should be taken to respect tissue planes as well as maintain hemostasis, preferably with bipolar electrocautery.
Bleeding can occur post-operatively once the vasoconstrictive effects of the local anesthetic have worn off, if appropriate hemostasis is not achieved before closure or if post-operative trauma occurs. Occult coagulopathies will ideally be identified preoperatively with a thorough history and physical exam. One of the hallmark signs of post-operative hematoma is intense pain, which is especially concerning if it presents in a unilateral or asymmetric fashion. This should be managed with immediate exploration with the goal of evacuating the hematoma and achieving hemostasis to avoid complications of wound infection, perichondritis, or chondritis, all of which can lead to devastating anatomic deformity or “cauliflower ear.”
A compressive dressing may also be applied at the end of the operation to aid in prevention of hematoma. The authors’ preferred choice of dressing is placement of xeroform into the concha and within the helix so that it is well formed in the crevices of the ear. Next, a Glasscock dressing is applied with a few of the fluffs removed as to not add too much pressure to the ear than may result in necrosis. This dressing is left on for 2 days, after which a headband is then worn continuously for 3 weeks.
Infection after otoplasty shares a common temporal trend with many surgical sites, typically manifesting after 3 to 4 days (Fig. 4). The incidence of infection is between 2.4% and 5.2%.
Appropriate preoperative sterile preparation and administration of peri-operative intravenous antibiotics, sterile and meticulous intraoperative surgical technique, and use of post-operative antibiotic ointment can all help to reduce the risk of post-operative infection.
Infection typically presents as visible erythema, edema or asymmetry, or drainage, or the patient may complain of disproportionate amounts of pain relative to physical examination findings. The spectrum of infection may range from simple cellulitis to more extensive infection such as perichondritis or chondritis, the latter of which can lead to significant deformity of the auricle. Infection warrants drainage and administration of parenteral antibiotics to cover both Pseudomonas Aeruginosa and gram-positive organisms. Tissue debridement may also be necessary if necrosis has occurred.
Cartilage necrosis will often occur as a result of an infection and will manifest as perichondritis. This often results in auricular deformity and may necessitate removal of the necrotic cartilage to remove the nidus of infection and prevent worsening auricular deformity. Skin necrosis is typically a result of flawed surgical technique and rough handling of the soft tissue and skin. The most likely factors are excessive cautery, poor surgical dissection, violation of the subdermal plexus blood supply, and excessively tight dressings. Pain that is disproportionate to the procedure is the most common complaint, and management is similar to hematoma with the addition of possible skin grafting needed if too much cartilage is exposed.
Late complications typically occur weeks to months after the procedure. They are usually more gradual in onset and can be overlooked without diligent follow-up.
Keloid and Hypertrophic Scarring
Certain individuals are predisposed to hypertrophic scarring, especially those with darker skin pigmentation and a personal or family history of hypertrophic scarring. Appropriate preoperative counseling should be undertaken to inform all patients about the risks of scarring. Nevertheless, planning incisions with care, minimizing tension at closure, and prevention of infection can help to avoid this complication. If keloids occur, they should be treated as they typically are at any other location. Intralesional triamcinolone (40 mg/mL) injection may be used to reduce the volume of hypertrophy, although more severe or refractory scarring may require excision, radiation, or pressure dressings.
If triamcinolone is used, patients should be counseled about the risks of intralesional injection including pain, hyperpigmentation or hypopigmentation of overlying skin, and tissue atrophy.
There is a range of suture complications related to otoplasty, and the nature of the complication is primarily dependent on the type of suture used.
Commonly used techniques, such as those described by Furnas and Mustarde, use nonabsorbable sutures to sculpt a new antihelical fold and decrease the prominence of the conchal bowl. The use of both braided and monofilament sutures have been described, and each comes with drawbacks. Braided or polyfilament sutures tend to be more reactive and more commonly result in infection and granuloma formation (Fig. 5). Although less erosive than polyfilament, monofilament sutures such as prolene and nylon have the risk of eroding through the skin or causing a bowstringing appearance in the post-auricular sulcus underneath the thin skin. They also have the tendency to slip, which can result in malposition of the pinna.
If infection or granuloma occurs, the timing of suture removal can be important in terms of cosmesis and maintenance of pinna position. If infection is indolent, removal can be delayed several months to allow time for further healing and expected scaring of soft tissues to avoid relapse of the initial malposition.
The great auricular nerve is responsible for much of the sensory innervation to the external ear. Injury to the nerve or its small branches during otoplasty can result in sensory deficits or paresthesias. Most of these deficits will improve and resolve with time alone, although rare permanent sensory complications have been reported. Patients have also reported decreased sensitivity to temperature, and this can be problematic in cold weather as patients are more susceptible to frostbite. Patients should be counseled to take appropriate precautions as needed.
Loss of Correction
This complication is one of the more common, ranging between 6.5% and 12%. Loss of correction is most affected by the type of technique used to correct the protruding ears (Fig. 6). Cartilage sparing techniques will have a higher rate of recurrence as compared with the cartilage cutting/contouring techniques. Skin-only excision as a means for setback will have the highest rate of recurrence. Furthermore, improper placement of sutures, placement of too few sutures causing increased tension and a “cheese wire” effect through the cartilage, and failure to overcorrect at the time surgery also contribute to recurrence. Mattress sutures placement should include a full-thickness cartilage bite through the anterior perichondrium. Improper placement may also lead to the “cheese wire” effect through the cartilage. Some patients may have resilient cartilage with a strong intrinsic memory. Failure to address this with additional techniques such as scoring may contribute to loss of correction within a few months time. Lastly, post-operative trauma may cause sutures to pull through and disrupt the healing process.
Our typical post-operative dressing includes a sports headband at all times for the first 3 weeks, then a headband every night while sleeping for 3 additional weeks. Patients, especially children are cautioned about rough housing and contact activities. It is fairly common to elicit a history of trauma in children after seeing some loss of correction.
As with any operative procedure, appropriate patient selection and preoperative counseling is essential for setting patient expectations. A thorough explanation of risks of the procedure must be accompanied by a discussion about the fact that immediate post-operative position of the pinna may not be maintained and that additional efforts (including reoperation) may be necessary to achieve the desired result. A review of possible complications should be addressed.
Telephone ear deformity occurs with overcorrection of the middle third of the ear excessively tightened with mattress sutures and/or overresection of the conchal bowl (Fig. 7). Overresection of the post-auricular skin can also contribute to telephone ear. Unrecognized lobular hypertrophy at the time of surgery may also contribute to the telephone ear. Reverse telephone ear is the opposite of the above, caused by overcorrection of the upper and lower one-third of the ear or under correction of the middle third.
Vertical post-deformity occurs with careless placement of superior Mustarde mattress suture creating a vertically oriented superior crus rather than a gentle curvilinear arc that mimics the shape of the helix. This deformity is a complication that can be seen with direct visualization at the time of surgery and thus should be avoided intraoperatively.
Overcorrection and the Hidden Helix
When excessive conchal resection occurs along with excessive post-auricular skin removal, the ear can often have a stuck down appearance with obliteration of the post-auricular sulcus (Fig. 8, Fig. 9, Fig. 10). A dumbbell-shaped excision of skin is used to avoid excess excision at the middle third of the ear. The hidden helix occurs when the antihelix is overcorrected, and this will cause the antihelix to obscure the helix from frontal view when in actuality; the aesthetically pleasing contour is for the helix to be visible by a few millimeters from the frontal view.
Auricular ridges are most often encountered with cartilage scoring or excision and will give a sharp-edged or jagged appearance of the antihelix (Fig. 11). These cartilage-cutting techniques can destabilize the auricular cartilage, and with new tensional forces during the healing period, can result in noticeable step-offs. These more aggressive techniques should be reserved for the particularly stiff cartilages and should be exercised with caution.
The esthetic antihelix has a gentle curve and recreating this element in the protruding ear is paramount for a good outcome (Figs. 12 and 13). Positioning of the Mustarde mattress sutures should be parallel to the cartilage and perichondrium, staying subdermal, and be positioned at least 7 mm apart to not create too sharp of a fold. The exact position of sutures is marked on the ear before prepping the skin with a marker, then with a needle dipped in methylene blue to mark the underlying cartilage; this assures exact placement after the skin has been elevated from the cartilage post-auricularly.
Narrowing of External Auditory Canal Meatus
Iatrogenic meatal stenosis is a serious complication of otoplasty and is more common in adults as their cartilage tends to be thicker and less compliant (Figs. 14 and 15). Narrowing of the canal can result from overrotation of the conchal bowl when setback sutures are placed. Concha-mastoid sutures should be placed so the concha is pulled posteriorly to avoid narrowing the canal. In addition, cartilage is shaved from the posterior aspect of the conchal cartilage behind the external auditory canal, which also helps to facilitate retro displacement of the ear. If this complication is encountered, excision of excessive cartilage from an anterior or posterior approach is required to restore patency of the canal.
Fortunately, complications after otoplasty are relatively uncommon and often unavoidable if meticulous technique, appropriate preoperative planning, and close post-operative care are used. The keys to successfully managing complications that arise are having a thorough understanding of their cause and a defined treatment algorithm to obtain the best outcome.
Pereira de Godoy J.M.
Psychosocial effects of otoplasty in children with prominent ears.