Preserving Nipple Sensitivity after Breast Cancer Surgery: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis

Breast J. 2022 Nov 19:2022:9654741. doi: 10.1155/2022/9654741. eCollection 2022.


Purpose: As breast-conserving procedures become increasingly safe and viable options for surgical management of breast cancer, efforts have focused on assessing and optimizing patient-reported outcome measures (PROMs), such as nipple sensation. This study aims to evaluate the current understanding of nipple-areolar complex (NAC) sensation outcomes in breast cancer patients undergoing breast cancer surgeries, namely, nipple-sparing mastectomies (NSM), skin-sparing mastectomies (SSM), and lumpectomies.

Methods: Articles including terms related to "nipple," "mastectomy," "sensation," and "patient-reported outcome" were queried from three databases according to PRISMA guidelines. Study characteristics, patient demographics, and surgical details were recorded. Outcomes of interest included objective nipple sensitivity testing and PROMs.

Results: Of 888 manuscripts identified, 28 articles met the inclusion criteria. Twelve studies (n = 578 patients) used objective measures to evaluate sensitivity, such as monofilament testing. Sixteen studies (n = 1785 patients) assessed PROMs through validated or investigator-generated surveys. Three of the included studies reported NAC sensitivity in patients who received NSM with neurotization (n = 203 patients) through a variety of techniques that used various grafts to coapt a lateral intercostal nerve to the NAC nerve stumps. Results of investigator surveys showed that of 1565 patients without neurotization, nipple sensation was maintained in 29.0% (n = 453) of patients. Of 138 NSM patients without NAC neurotization, SWM testing showed an average loss of protective sensation in the nipple (average SWM score: 4.7) compared to normal or diminished sensation to light touch in nonoperated controls (average SWM score: 2.9, n = 195). Of patients who underwent NSM with neurotization, one study (n = 78) reported maintenance of NAC sensation in 100% of patients, while another study (n = 7) reported average diminished protective sensation in the nipple (average SWM score: 3.9).

Conclusion: Our study has shown that objective and patient-reported results of nipple sensitivity support nipple-sparing techniques as a viable option for preserving NAC sensation, although patients can expect a decrease in sensation overall. Neurotization of the NAC during NSM shows promising results of improved postoperative nipple sensitivity, though additional studies are warranted to confirm this finding. Variations between study methodologies highlight the lack of standardization in sensory testing techniques when evaluating NAC sensation.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Breast Neoplasms* / surgery
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Mastectomy*