Your body is good at healing most cuts, breaks, wounds, and other injuries on its own. But some are just too big or serious to heal naturally. That’s when a graft may help.
In this type of surgery, a doctor replaces tissue (or bone) that’s missing or damaged with a healthy substitute -- that’s the graft. Give it some time, and the graft heals and merges with the surrounding area. It’s a little like replacing a bare patch in a lawn with a fresh piece of sod.
Of course, grafting is a lot more complicated than lawn care, and doctors use this technique in many different ways. A graft could save your life after a serious burn, repair sports injuries like a torn ACL, or even hide a bald spot on your head.
In a sense, grafts are replacement parts for your body. So where do they come from? Doctors have a few choices.
From you (autograft). In many cases, doctors take a graft from somewhere else in or on your body.
From someone else (allograft). These might come from a living donor or from abank that stores tissue or bone for grafts.
From an animal (xenograft). It might sound odd, but in some cases, doctors can use grafts of tissue from animals like pigs.
From a company. Some companies sell artificial materials, such as skin substitutes, that can work as grafts.
Types of Grafts
These are some of the ways doctors can use grafts.
When skin damage -- from burns, injuries, or surgery -- is too big to treat with stitches, grafts can help.
Your doctor removes the injured skin and replaces it with a healthy patch, usually from somewhere else on your body, like your arm or leg. Over days or weeks, it heals together with your surrounding skin.
Ligaments are tough bands of tissue that hold bones or cartilage together. But when they tear, they may not heal.
Doctors routinely treat torn ACLs (anterior cruciate ligament) in the knee by grafting on a healthy tendon to replace it.
Coronary Bypasses and Other Vascular Grafts
If one of the arteries in your heart is blocked or dangerously narrowed, you may get a coronary artery bypass graft. Your doctor removes a vein (often from your leg) and attaches it to the artery on either side of the problem area. This is a bypass. Or your surgeon may need to reconnect one end of an artery (usually from the chest) directly to the heart. Doctors can use similar strategies with other blocked or narrowed arteries.
Doctors can treat damaged bone with a graft of healthy bone, usually taken from your pelvic bone on your lower back. More recently, they use injections of bone marrow instead. Once it’s in place, the bone grows and heals.
When your gums get damaged, they can pull back and expose the roots of your teeth. Dental surgeons can graft healthy tissue to heal the gums and protect your teeth. The graft could come from the roof of your mouth or from a donor.
Cosmetic Surgery Grafts
There are many types. For example, to treat baldness, a surgeon can remove tiny sections of your scalp, with hair, from the back of your head and graft them into bare spots.
Cosmetic surgeons may also take fat cells from one part of your body and transfer it somewhere else, like in the breasts for augmentation or in the face as part of a facelift.
What to Consider
There are many types of grafts with different pros and cons. So you’ll need to get specifics from your doctor about what to expect. Here are some general things to think about.
Grafts can be serious surgery. If you need a simple graft, a doctor may be able to do it in a clinic with local anesthesia, which numbs the affected area but you’re still awake. For more complicated grafts, you may need to be put under during the operation and stay in the hospital afterwards.
If you get a graft from your own body, you’ll need surgery in two spots. The first is where the graft comes from and the second is where it will go. Doctors try to take tissue or bone for grafts from areas that will hurt the least and heal well.
Grafts can have complications. Infections, bleeding, and clots are possible. Skin grafts leave scars.
You need to be careful during recovery. Grafts may take time to heal, and you need to protect them. When you’re home, follow your doctor’s instructions exactly so you get better ASAP.
Grafts don’t always work. Sometimes skin grafts don’t take, and the doctor has to remove them. Other types of grafts, such as those for veins, may wear out over time. If your graft fails, your doctor will talk with you about whether a new graft makes sense or if you need a different approach.