Skin sensations are essential for experiencing pressure, temperature and pain. These can also protect you from illness and injury. Therefore, any sensory abnormality can be more than alarming. That’s because, essentially, one of your safety barriers is down.
Among other things, invasive surgeries can alter skin sensations. For one, anaesthesia and being inactive during surgery can make your skin feel numb for a few days.
However, after surgery, patients often experience sensory changes for months or even years. But do these sensations ever return? Also, are they indicative of something more serious? Let’s find out.
Plastic Surgery Sensory Changes: What Should You Expect?
After undergoing a surgical procedure, you may experience the following sensations:
- Pins and needles
- Burning (paresthesia)
- Zingers (quick flashes of pain)
- Cold sensation
- Hypersensitivity and/or hyposensitivity
- Neuropathic pain (allodynia)
- Neuralgia (shooting, stabbing, or like an electric shock)
Most of the time, these side effects are normal and expected, although they can be quite uncomfortable. Even touching or rubbing of the clothes against the surgical area can trigger some of them. Normally, you should expect them to resolve on their own.
What Causes Sensation Changes After Plastic Surgery?
Skin sensations can alter for some time after plastic surgery due to one or more of the following reasons:
Nerve damage during surgery is usually the reason why skin sensations change. And this is true for any surgery, not just plastic surgery.
Nerves can get injured when the surgeon is cutting into the skin either to place an implant or remove excess skin or fat. It can also occur when the skin is sutured at the end of the surgery.
Therefore, nerve injury isn’t just about the expertise of the surgeon. Even the most experienced surgeons will end up cutting into some nerves because of the very nature of invasive surgeries.
For instance, many patients complain of altered sensation in their nipples after breast surgery (augmentation, reduction and uplift). That’s because it is common to cut around the nipple-areola complex in breast augmentation, uplift, and reduction.
As a result, some nerve branches are also cut, which affects their ability to communicate with your brain.
So, even when you’re touching the nipple, your brain won’t be sent any message about it. That can cause a temporary loss of sensation in the nipples.
Rest assured, once your nerve ends heal, your skin should start feeling normal again.
It’s normal to experience swelling after surgery. It’s a part of the healing process. However, one consequence of swelling is that it can compress the nerves in the area, which can temporarily affect skin sensations.
Keep in mind that the time it takes for swelling to subside can vary. It depends on the procedure (and the body’s healing response) and can take as long as 1 year to go away completely. During that time, the swollen surgical area may feel different.
Skin sensations can also be affected by the surgical approach. An incision for breast surgery, for example, can be made in a number of ways. It is possible to determine which surgical area will lose sensation based on the type of incision used.
An inframammary incision that’s made in the crease of the breast will affect the sensitivity in the lower half of the breast. It’s because of the proximity to the incision line.
When the skin is cut open and the flaps are lifted, some of the nerves get damaged.
But depending on the surgical technique – mini or full facelift – only particular areas of the skin will be affected.
Again, this change in sensory function will only be temporary so you don’t need to worry about it.
Your needs and expectations from a particular procedure can also affect how your skin feels after the surgery.
For example, when it comes to breast augmentation, you need to keep in mind that the bigger the implant, the more it will stretch the nerves in the area.
Also, it’s not just the nerves that are being stretched; the muscle and skin tissue are also stretching to accommodate the implant.
However, when the nerves are affected, the sensations will be temporarily altered. Give your implants some time to settle, and they will get better.
Furthermore, skin sensations can be affected by the amount of skin removed during surgeries that require skin excisions (breast reduction, facelift or tummy tuck).
It is believed that the larger the amount of skin removed, the more nerves will be damaged. And sometimes, the changes in skin sensations can be permanent.
One study published in Aesthetic Surgery Journal found that “younger patients” with a “high BMI” were more likely to experience loss of sensation after breast augmentation.
Also, keep in mind that certain areas of the body are more sensitive than others. So, when sensations alter in those areas, you’re likely to feel it more. Your breasts are one example of it.
According to a study published in the International Journal of Medical Sciences, both tactile (touch or pressure) and vibration sensitivity is the highest in the nipple. So, your nipple is going to be more affected after breast surgery, especially if an incision has been made around the nipple-areola complex.
How Long Does It Take For Sensations To Return After Plastic Surgery?
The time it takes for sensations to return after surgery depends on the surgery itself and the patient.
Nerve injury usually takes 6 months to a year to heal. It can also take up to two years for some people. Once the nerve ends heal, your skin should start to feel normal again, so this is only temporary.
Sensitivity may return faster to some parts of the surgical area than to others. But normally, you should regain sensitivity once the nerves regenerate. You may experience the following signs of nerve healing:
- Burning sensation
- Sharp, shock-like pain
Still, if at any time you feel that you’re not recovering normally, you should get in touch with your doctor.
What Helps In Regaining Sensations After Plastic Surgery?
Usually, surgeons recommend massaging the surgical area to help with the altered skin sensitivity after surgery. However, depending on the extent of the problem, you may need to take medications and undergo other therapies.
Some patients experience neuropathic pain after surgery. It develops as a result of nerve damage and can last for months to years. Different medicines are prescribed for this, such as anti-seizure medications, NSAIDs, nerve blocks or painkillers.
Also, if a big nerve was cut during the surgery, you may be recommended sensory re-education to improve the sensibility of the area. Or, if you’re experiencing hypersensitivity, a desensitisation program may be able to help.
Meanwhile, if the rubbing of the clothes against the surgical area causes discomfort, you might need surgical tape or a compression bandage. For nipples, pasties or covers are available in the market. However, do not do any of these things unless advised by your doctor.
Can Plastic Surgery Alter Skin Sensations Permanently?
The chances of regaining normal sensations after plastic surgery are slim if you experience abnormal sensations or pain 2 years after surgery. In this case, make sure to get in touch with your doctor because there may be a more serious issue at play, such as:
- Neuroma – A benign tumour that can form on the site of nerve injury. It can be extremely painful and might also cause a tingling sensation.
- Health Conditions – Certain health problems, such as diabetes or Paget’s disease, can also cause nerve problems, which can result in numbness and tingling.
- Capsular Contracture – If a nerve gets trapped in the scar tissue that forms around a breast implant – capsular contracture – can also cause pain.
Sometimes, even life changes such as pregnancy or weight gain can alter skin sensitivity. Depending on the actual cause of the problem, your doctor will recommend a suitable treatment. But it’s important that you seek professional advice as soon as possible.
Skin sensitivity can change as a result of plastic surgery. However, normally, this is only temporary. Nerve damage is the most common culprit behind it. But the nerves heal in about 6 months (sometimes even sooner) to a year, after which you should regain your normal sensations.
However, if this doesn’t happen 2 years after the surgery, the damage may be more severe, or there may be another underlying problem. In any case, it’s important that you get in touch with your doctor as soon as possible. Also, during recovery, make sure to keep your surgeon updated about your progress so that you have peace of mind that everything’s going normally.