Postoperative anticoagulation after free flap reconstruction for head and neck cancer: A systematic review

Laryngoscope. 2018 Feb;128(2):412-421. doi: 10.1002/lary.26703. Epub 2017 Jun 5.


Objective: Postoperative use of anticoagulation after free tissue transfer in head and neck ablative procedures is common practice, but a clear protocol has not been well established. The outcome measures including total flap failure, thrombosis, and hematoma formation for different anticoagulation regimens in free tissue transfer in the head and neck were reviewed.

Data sources: PubMed, Ovid, and Cochrane databases were examined for patients who underwent free tissue transfer following head and neck ablative procedures.

Review methods: Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-analyses guidelines were utilized to identify English-language studies reporting anticoagulation regimens following free tissue transfer in head and neck ablative procedures. Outcomes included total flap failure, thrombosis, and hematoma formation. Two independent reviewers assessed the quality of the articles by using the Methodological Index for Non-Randomized Studies.

Results: A total of 368 articles were identified. An additional 36 articles were identified through screening of reference lists. Twenty-one of these studies met final inclusion criteria for qualitative analysis. Outcome data on total flap failure, thrombosis, and hematoma formation were extracted and analyzed for comparison against all anticoagulation regimens. Total flap failure, thrombosis, and hematoma formation rates were 4.4%, 4.5%, and 2.2%, respectively. Individual study rates ranged from 0.0% to 10.7%, 0.0% to 10.4%, and 0.6% to 7.2%, respectively.

Conclusions: There is not adequate evidence to develop a standardized anticoagulation protocol for head and neck free flap procedures. Comparable flap complications were reported between all the employed anticoagulation methods studied, though significant variability in study design among articles existed. Prospective, randomized studies are warranted to determine the optimal postoperative anticoagulation regimen following free tissue transfer of the head and neck. Laryngoscope, 128:412-421, 2018.

Keywords: Postoperative; anticoagulation; free flap; free tissue transfer; head and neck cancer; systematic review.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Anticoagulants / therapeutic use*
  • Female
  • Head and Neck Neoplasms / surgery*
  • Hematoma / epidemiology
  • Hematoma / etiology
  • Hematoma / prevention & control*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Plastic Surgery Procedures / adverse effects*
  • Plastic Surgery Procedures / methods
  • Postoperative Complications / epidemiology
  • Postoperative Complications / etiology
  • Postoperative Complications / prevention & control*
  • Surgical Flaps / adverse effects*
  • Thrombosis / epidemiology
  • Thrombosis / etiology
  • Thrombosis / prevention & control*
  • Treatment Outcome


  • Anticoagulants