Iliac Crest Tissue Transfer Treatment & Management

Updated: May 13, 2021
  • Author: Neeraj N Mathur, MBBS, MS, DNB, MAMS, FAMS; Chief Editor: Arlen D Meyers, MD, MBA  more...
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Surgical Therapy

Base flap selection on the careful evaluation of the patient and the defect. Evaluate the defect in terms of the component tissue deficits.


Preoperative Details

Proper patient selection is paramount. Carefully evaluate patients to exclude the possibility of prior surgical compromise to the donor site. The presence of significant atherosclerosis within the iliac-femoral system is a concern; however, this disease process has not been reported to extend to the deep circumflex vessels. Consider activity level and daily work. The author generally selects other flap donor sites when the patient's occupation or recreational activities place major strain on the abdominal wall. In general, conduct a risk/benefit analysis of potential donor sites for the characteristics of each specific patient.

Patients are kept as near euvolic as possible. Excessive hydration has no value and may prove harmful secondary to interference with normal respiratory function. The author believes that the past practice of overhydration has no role in free-tissue transfer. Recently published evidence supports the abandoning of this practice.

Head and neck procedures, especially those that require free-tissue transfer, often take considerable time to complete. Ensure that appropriate control of the patient's temperature is maintained. The increase in myocardial oxygen demand associated with hypothermia is well documented; temperature regulation is not a specific requirement of the flap. Preservation of appropriate peripheral perfusion is an additional reason to maintain the patient's temperature.

In general, the use of anticoagulation (heparinization) of patients undergoing free-tissue transfer has been discontinued. Aspirin is commonly administered daily beginning the night of surgery. Reports have documented the vulnerability of the flap vessels to compression by hematoma. The incidence of hematoma in patients who are anticoagulated is too high to warrant continuation of this in routine cases.

The harvest of the DCIA flap violates all layers of the abdominal wall except the peritoneum. In some patients, the use of polypropylene mesh seems to strengthen the closure of the wound. The propylene mesh generally is fixated to the residual ilium through drill holes laterally and to the external oblique muscle fascia or linea semilunaris anteriorly.

To avoid undue straining against the repair during the early postoperative period, perform a presurgical initiation of a bowel regimen the week before surgery. Straining is a concern because these patients typically are in need of narcotic medications in the preoperative and immediate postoperative period. Administer stool softeners when narcotic pain medications are necessary or the week before surgery, whichever comes first. If the patient does not have a bowel movement in the first few days following the reinstitution of enteral nutrition, add motility agents to the regimen. Appropriate hydration also must be provided.

Position patients with a folded sheet under the hip on the donor side. Generously shave the pubic region. Place adherence plastic drapes to exclude the genitals. Ensure that the entire desired field is included in the standard skin preparation and draping by marking the surgical anatomic landmarks before skin preparation. The relevant landmarks are the inferior costal margin, midline of the abdomen, inguinal ligament, iliac crest/spine, femoral vessels, and the skin incision/skin paddle. Visualization of the vascular pedicle is improved with slight rotation of the bed toward the side of the harvest and the avoidance of the reverse Trendelenburg position.


Intraoperative Details

Skin paddle

Minimal difference exists between the harvest of the flap with cutaneous, muscle, and bone elements and the harvest of the flap without the skin. If the skin is to be harvested with the flap, mark out an elliptical skin island to incorporate the zone of the musculocutaneous perforators that exists along the iliac crest from the ASIS approximately 9 cm posteriorly and extends medial to the crest approximately 2.5 cm. The skin paddle generally is centered over this zone. The superior incision must be made first to allow careful dissection between the subcutaneous tissue and the external oblique fascia to identify the musculocutaneous perforators (see the image below).

Iliac crest tissue transfer. Exposure of the exter Iliac crest tissue transfer. Exposure of the external oblique fascia. Note the planned incision 2.5 cm medial to the iliac crest.

Identification of the internal oblique and ascending branch

Make an incision at least 2.5 cm away from the iliac crest through the external oblique muscle. Then, dissect within the avascular plane between the external and internal oblique muscles (see the first image below). Extend the dissection and retraction to the costal margin superiorly and the linea semilunaris medially. Incise the internal oblique muscle and isolate it from the underlying transversalis muscle. The change in muscle fiber direction helps delineate this plane. Careful dissection allows identification of the DCIA ascending branch.

The ascending branch is then followed to its junction with the DCIA/DCIV, most often just medial to the ASIS. Proceed with the dissection by isolating the flap vessels to their origin at the external iliac vessels. The position of the lateral femoral cutaneous nerve can vary; it has been identified deep to, superficial to, or between the DCIA/DCIV (see the second image below). A rare anatomic alteration in which the ascending branch has a separate take-off from the external artery has been identified.

Iliac crest tissue transfer. Incision of the exter Iliac crest tissue transfer. Incision of the external oblique allows exposure of the internal oblique. The dissection is in an avascular plane and extends to the costal margin superiorly and the linea semilunaris medially.
Iliac crest tissue transfer. The vascular pedicle Iliac crest tissue transfer. The vascular pedicle is shown with the lateral femoral cutaneous nerve lying just beneath it.

Bone harvest

Divide the transversalis muscle and identify the iliacus muscle (see the image below). Divide the iliacus at the site of the planned bone cut. Then, complete the lateral skin incision and dissection. Release the fascia and muscles from the lateral surface of the ilium to the level of the planned bone cut. The author seldom harvests the ASIS because, by not harvesting the ASIS, the insertion of the inguinal ligament is preserved and provides a structure to which the polypropylene mesh is attached. The bone cuts are made with an oscillating saw. The direction and extent depend on the recipient bed defect. Careful retraction and protection of the bowel are required.

Iliac crest tissue transfer. The donor site is man Iliac crest tissue transfer. The donor site is managed by direct approximation of the iliacus and transversalis muscles. The closure is completed by securing a mesh to the residual ilium and the external oblique fascia.

Bone contouring

Following ligation of the pedicle and transfer to the head and neck, contour the bone portion of the flap to meet the dimensions of the bone defect (see the image below). Accomplish this by opening osteotomies. These bone cuts traverse the lateral cortex and crest of the ilium without violating the inner cortex. Out-fracturing of the ilium allows it to be bent to shape without compromising the vascular pedicle. The author prefers to adapt the plate to the defect initially and then adapt the bone to the dimensions of the plate.

Iliac crest tissue transfer. The harvested flap be Iliac crest tissue transfer. The harvested flap before contouring.

Secure the bone to the plate and complete the soft tissue inset before the microvascular anastomosis. Pack free cancellous bone into the opening osteotomies. Generally, wrap the internal oblique around the bone if it is not needed elsewhere (see the image below). When exposed to the oral cavity, the muscle undergoes rapid mucosalization. When the resection is limited to the mandible and the soft tissues directly adjacent to it, the muscle forms an excellent mucosalized surface. The muscle atrophy results in a thin but highly vascularized covering of the neomandible. Likewise, when performing maxillary reconstruction, a thin fixed surface is desirable. Design the flap harvest and inset so that the pedicle lies on the lingual surface of the mandible or the medial surface of any opening osteotomies.

Iliac crest tissue transfer. Flap inset to the man Iliac crest tissue transfer. Flap inset to the mandibular defect. Note opening osteotomies are filled with cancellous bone particles. The muscle is then wrapped around the bone to provide a soft-tissue coverage and a seal of the oral cavity.

Postoperative Details

As with any free flap, postoperative monitoring is essential. Protocols vary; the author's monitoring protocol is described. Nursing documentation of flap color and capillary refill occurs every hour for 48 hours. Physician evaluation is accomplished at least every 6 hours. A 25-gauge needle stick test may be used to clarify the clinical examination as indicated. After the first 24 hours, patients generally are transferred to the regular nursing unit where the physician flap evaluations continue. Patients receive an aspirin per day to inhibit platelet adhesion; this is continued for 60 days.

Patients are kept at bedrest for 3-5 days. Thereafter, a progressive program of ambulation is begun. Nutrition is begun when bowel sounds are present and low-rate tube feeding is tolerated without distension or reported fullness.



Routine follow-up care of patients following DCIA flap reconstruction requires assessment of the operative site for healing without hernia formation, progressive ambulation, and gradual return to unrestricted activity. Physical therapy evaluation and intervention are helpful, if not imperative. A normal gait is expected with appropriate healing and rehabilitation. Compared to the donor site rehabilitation following a fibula harvest, that of the DCIA requires additional time (approximately 1 mo) to achieve pain-free normal mobility.



Flap failure

With careful attention to flap design and harvesting, excellent success rates can be achieved. In general, the healing of the bone portion of the flap is rapid. To avoid extreme angles, kinking, or redundancy, strongly consider the design of the flap and the geometry of the pedicle-recipient vessels. The skin paddle must be designed over the zone of musculocutaneous perforators and is not mobile. In general, the author does not attempt to isolate the entire skin paddle on one perforator to achieve mobility. If mobility of the skin paddle is necessary, then select another flap or an additional flap.


Significant weakness of the abdominal wall is produced by the harvest of one of the layers of abdominal muscle. Use direct closure only in the healthiest patients. The author prefers to manage the donor site by supporting the wound closure with polypropylene mesh secured to the residual ilium. The author has not witnessed the formation of a hernia in a patient in whom mesh reconstruction was completed.


Particular attention to hemostasis is necessary to prevent the formation of a hematoma. Careful ligation of vessels is mandatory. Hemostasis can be achieved at the bone cuts with bone wax. Drains are indicated in a deep plane and in the subcutaneous tissue.

Skin perforation

A retrospective study by Ritschl et al using free fibula flaps and iliac crest flaps indicated that these microvascular bone flaps lead to less skin perforation than do plates, in mandibular reconstruction. [16]


Outcome and Prognosis

As with all reconstructive surgery, weigh the potential value of any operation against the donor site deformity. All proposed flaps that meet the criteria required by the defect should be evaluated for their individual merit. The DCIA flap has equal applicability to anterior and lateral defects when the soft tissue requirements of the defect are suitable. In the author's experience, rapid healing and dental rehabilitation have been accomplished with fewer difficulties than in patients reconstructed with a fibula flap (see the image below).

Iliac crest tissue transfer. An early postoperativ Iliac crest tissue transfer. An early postoperative film demonstrates that the bone harvest can equal the dimensions of the resection site.

A study by Chen et al reported good results from the use of chimeric DCIA perforator flaps in the reconstruction of oromandibular defects, citing satisfactory alveolar ridge restoration, as well as the benefits of high mobility between the skin paddle and the bone component in composite defect repair. The flap was successfully harvested in five of six patients undergoing the surgery, with all flaps surviving. [17]


Future and Controversies

The DCIA flap has been used worldwide for 2 decades and has proven utility and reliability. It is a valuable addition to the armamentarium of any surgeon performing head and neck reconstruction. Discussion between reconstructive surgeons regarding their indications for the use of any particular flap in a specific instance will always occur.

The freshly isolated connective tissue progenitor and culture-expanded mesenchymal stem cell populations can be derived from both the anterior and posterior iliac crest for therapeutic application. The yield of colony-founding connective tissue is 1.6 times greater in the posterior compared with the anterior iliac crest. [18]

Immediate placement of osseointegrated implants into the flap remains a topic of considerable debate. Patients requiring a major resection and bone reconstruction obviously have advanced disease; in most instances, the survival rate for such patients is unpredictable. Plenty of evidence exists indicating that the implants heal with acceptable rates of integration when primarily placed at the time of reconstruction and that they can reliably be placed in the primary setting in a position useful for dental rehabilitation. This discussion represents yet another situation in which potential benefit must be carefully evaluated against cost and complications.

A literature review by Khadembaschi et al indicated, using pooled analysis, that the 5-year survival rate for osseointegrated implants in fibula and iliac crest free flaps is 94%, with the same rate seen in both types of flap. Implant survival was reportedly affected by factors such as radiotherapy and malignant disease. [19]