Thumb Reconstruction

Updated: Jan 25, 2023
  • Author: Reuben A Bueno, Jr, MD; Chief Editor: Vinod K Panchbhavi, MD, FACS, FAOA, FABOS, FAAOS  more...
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The thumb plays an important role in hand function. Daily tasks involving pinch, grip, grasp, and precision handling are more easily accomplished with an opposable thumb. Traumatic loss, congenital absence, or hypoplasia diminishes or eliminates the thumb's prehensile abilities and may affect overall hand function.

Images relevant to thumb reconstruction are provided below:

Diagram of a Moberg volar advancement flap being u Diagram of a Moberg volar advancement flap being used for a thumb tip defect.
Diagram of a Littler neurovascular island flap for Diagram of a Littler neurovascular island flap for the coverage of a thumb tip defect.
Markings for the pedicle of a first dorsal metacar Markings for the pedicle of a first dorsal metacarpal artery flap.
Markings for a free tissue transfer of great toe p Markings for a free tissue transfer of great toe pulp to restore a volar thumb defect.
Volar view of the clinical appearance of a Blauth Volar view of the clinical appearance of a Blauth type IV pouce flottant thumb.

Horta et al retrospectively reviewed 107 cases of thumb reconstruction in emergency situations using Moberg, radial innervated cross-finger, Venkataswami-Subramanian, Foucher, Tezcan, and Littler flaps. The Foucher flap was used the most often, in 56 cases, and the Tezcan flap proved to be a good alternative. [1]

According to Ray et al, when replantation of an avulsed/amputated thumb is not feasible, toe-to-hand transfer may be considered at initial presentation as an immediate one-stage transfer in appropriately chosen patients. In a retrospective study of 6 patients, great-toe transfer was safely and reliably performed and reduced hospitalization and operative and recovery time. In addition, according to the authors, it may speed up the return of function and return to work. [2]


History of the Procedure

Attempts to restore thumb function were recorded as early as 1874, when Huguier reported on the "phalangization" of the thumb metacarpal, which was carried out by deepening the first web space. [3] In 1900, Nicoladoni described a reconstruction procedure following traumatic amputation of the thumb in which a staged, pedicled transfer of the great toe was performed. [4] Development of microsurgical techniques allowed successful transfer of a toe to a thumb in monkeys in 1965 and in a human in 1966. [5, 6]

Reports of technical refinements in the toe-to-thumb transfer subsequently appeared in the literature. [7, 8] Congenital absence of the thumb from thalidomide exposure provided experience with index finger pollicization for thumb reconstruction. [9]



Congenital absence or traumatic injury to the thumb, resulting in a loss of its prehensile ability, significantly affects hand function.



Traumatic loss, congenital absence, or hypoplasia of the thumb may result in a need for thumb replantation.



Restoration of the 5 components of thumb function described by Littler — stability, strength, mobility, sensibility, and posture — should serve as the basis for any reconstructive plan. [10] Consideration of these components and how they relate to each other allows a functional approach to the thumb deficit that guides the reconstructive hand surgeon. The goals of thumb reconstruction, as outlined by Heitmann and Levin, consist of the following [11] :

  • Sensate and nontender thumb tip

  • Stability at the interphalangeal (IP) and metacarpophalangeal (MCP) joints

  • Adequate strength to resist the forces of the fingers

  • Correct posture and positioning of the thumb with a wide webspace

  • Mobility of the carpometacarpal (CMC) joint with intrinsic muscles to aid prehension

Whether an indication for surgery is related to injury or congenital malformation of the thumb, the ultimate goal is optimal function of the hand. Pinch, fine manipulation, and power grip depend to some extent on stable, sensate skin in the pulp and a functional IP joint. The power grip is enhanced by the strength and mobility of the thumb, which in turn are largely defined by the integrity of the intrinsic and extrinsic musculature, as well as by the functionality of the CMC joint. [12, 13]

Selecting the most appropriate technique for thumb reconstruction depends on multiple factors, including the following:

  • Level of injury

  • Status of the remaining hand

  • Presence or absence of the thenar musculature

  • Age, occupation, overall health, and functional demands of the patient

In addition, the indication for surgery varies not only with the patient's needs and desires, but also with age, gender, and general health. The level of injury is among the most important factors to consider in deciding on the most appropriate reconstructive strategy. Kleinman and Strickland described a useful classification system, dividing the thumb into thirds: the distal phalanx, the proximal phalanx, and the metacarpal segment. [14]

The successful replantation of an amputated thumb restores the appearance of and some function to the injured hand. The procedure yields high satisfaction rates, whereas the functional outcome of other reconstructive methods tends to be less rewarding.


Relevant Anatomy

The thumb's arterial supply is provided mainly through the terminal branch of the radial artery, the princeps pollicis. This artery crosses the first intermetacarpal space to run on the volar aspect of the MCP joint, where it divides into the ulnar and radial collateral arteries. The ulnar collateral artery is usually larger than the radial collateral artery, and it is often easier to repair during replantation. The median nerve and the superficial radial nerve supply sensation to the palmar skin and to the dorsal side of the thumb, respectively.

The abductor pollicis longus, extensor pollicis brevis, and extensor pollicis longus extend the thumb. They insert at the base of the thumb metacarpal, proximal phalanx, and distal phalanx, respectively.

For more information about the relevant anatomy, see Hand Anatomy.