AACE 2016

ORLANDO (FRONTLINE MEDICAL NEWS) – Gender reassignment surgery is the most extreme step for those transgender individuals who wish to complete the transformation to the opposite sex. While many transgender people do not opt to take this step, it may be an option for people who still have gender dysphoria after a thorough diagnostic work-up by a mental health professional, hormonal treatment, and having lived in the desired gender role as a “real-life test.”

Dr. Stan Monstrey, of Ghent University Hospital, Belgium, is an experienced gender reassignment surgeon and reported at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Clinical Endocrinology that between 1995 and 2005, he saw about 20-30 new patients a year. But now, he said, “We operate on a weekly basis between a minimum of three and sometimes six or seven transsexuals, so … in our practice, probably between 90% and 95% are still going the whole way, still want what was called initially binary surgery.”

Transwomen: Male to female

The transformation procedure for male to female begins with feminizing aesthetic procedures, such as reducing the Adam’s apple (laryngeal prominence of the thyroid cartilage) and chin, frontal boss of the forehead, and possibly other facial work such as rhinoplasty. “Sometimes minor changes can have a huge effect on the face of the patient,” Dr. Monstrey said. “This is becoming, in our opinion, increasingly important for transwomen.”

Then, in about 75% of cases, Dr. Monstrey performs at least two surgeries under the same anesthesia – breast augmentation and perineal transformation. He said even after years of hormone therapy, most such patients have only a limited amount of breast tissue but want more prominent breasts. Implants can be placed behind or in front of the pectoralis muscle via inframammary, transaxillary, or occasionally periareolar approaches. Results are immediate, and complications are rare.

Another technique, which has become very popular over the past 5-10 years, is lipofilling to fill defects and depressions in the breasts. Stem cells contained in the fat may help soften scars. But when faced with a patient who had a BRCA1 mutation, the surgeons would not use lipofilling, fearing the potential for breast cancer, and would use prostheses instead ( J Sex Med. 2014 Oct;11:2496-9 ). Still, questions remain about even using hormone treatments in such a patient.

Dr. Monstrey mentioned that in Belgium, breast augmentation for transwomen is considered reconstructive surgery and is always reimbursed whereas it is considered aesthetic surgery and never reimbursed for non-transwomen who want larger breasts. (For transmen, breast amputation is similarly reimbursed.)

The second operation is genital transformation. Basically, the interior of the penis is removed and the skin is invaginated to form a vagina of 8-18.5 cm and a scrotal flap, along with castration and removal of the penile bulb erectile tissue (corpus spongiosum) posteriorly. It is important to protect the rectal wall, which is not very strong. The foreskin becomes the new clitoral hood and inner side of the labia minora, and the clitoris is formed by reducing and transposing the penile glans. If the patient had a small penis and not enough tissue for the reconstruction, skin flaps from various other sites can be used.

Among more than 1,200 patients, 92% could achieve orgasm. Rectovaginal fistulas occurred in 4 patients, 19 needed repositioning of the urethra, 21 needed an operation to lengthen the vagina, and 95 needed aesthetic correction of the vulva. Dr. Monstrey said many patients have asked him when they should tell their new boyfriends about their transformation, meaning that the surgery was quite convincing even with penetrative sex.

If the first operation does not work, another technique is to use an isolated piece of colon or sigmoid bowel, which has been performed completely laparoscopically by a very skilled gastroenterologic surgeon at the hospital in Ghent.

Speaking to a roomful of endocrinologists, Dr. Monstrey told them, “I’ll be the first one to agree with you that indeed puberty blockers are a very good thing. However, we as surgeons are not so enthusiastic about them because … it is impossible to create a normal vagina” because of a lack of available tissue from the underdeveloped penis.

Transmen: Female to male

“Transmen react much better to hormonal therapy than do transwomen,” he said. “If they hide their breasts they really look like men. The disadvantage is that the surgical treatment is much more complex.” The most important operation for them is subcutaneous mastectomy and male contouring. A small, semiareolar incision leaves almost no scar. Most patients still require excision of redundant skin of the breasts.

Phalloplasty is a complex operation aimed at giving the patient an aesthetic phallus, a normal scrotum, the ability to void while standing, and to perform sexual intercourse, all while protecting erogenous sensation, with minimal morbidity and mortality. Dr. Monstrey reported that he has performed 600-700 phalloplasties.

The most common technique has been to use a free vascularized flap from another bodily site with the artery, vein, and nerves to reconnect at the phalloplasty site. Because the skin is very thin on the inner forearm, it is often used and allows forming an inner tube for the urethra and an outer tube for the penis. The surgery may have to be done in three or four stages for the best results. From pictures that Dr. Monstrey showed, it was obvious that the constructed penises were not absolutely natural in appearance, but he said most patients were “rather happy” with them, despite many of these patients being quite demanding. A scrotum is constructed from transposition of the labia minora.

Unfortunately, voiding while standing is often a problem, with 197 out of 562 patients (35%) having a fistula and urine leakage, but this issue frequently corrects itself. “More difficult to treat are the strictures with stenosis, which can be a problem voiding,” he said (occurring in 78/562). Other complications were 5 complete and 43 partial flap failures, 4 cases of compression syndrome, 58 cases of delayed wound healing, and 15 cases of transient ischemia. Flap failures occurred mainly in smokers, “so we don’t operate on smokers anymore,” he said.

One year after the constructive surgery, a penile prosthesis is implanted for those who want it, allowing sexual intercourse. Most individuals had orgasmic function, not because of reconnected nerves in the flap, but, Dr. Monstrey said he believes, because the clitoris, placed beneath the phallus, is denuded and stimulated during sexual activity. He said the problem is that the prostheses are usually intended for elderly men “who have sex a couple of times a month and who have a normal anatomy.” Young transmen may engage in more sexual activity, “so we have a lot of problems with exposure [of the prosthesis], infection, technical defects, and so on,” he said.

A technique gaining popularity is to use a skin flap from the groin area to make a urethra and one from the thigh to construct a penis. Although a penile transplant has recently been performed for a patient who had lost his penis to cancer, transplants are not being considered at this point, both for surgical technical reasons and because of a need for lifelong immunosuppressive drugs.

Proper referrals and counseling

The World Professional Association for Transgender Health in its Standard of Care guidelines 7 recommends one mental health professional referral for the breast surgery and two such referrals for genital surgery. The issue of possible parenthood should be discussed with patients, along with early counseling about fertility options. The age of majority and consent in different countries is important. Dr. Monstrey said genital surgery may be possible before the age of 18 years if all members of a multidisciplinary team of health professionals agree on a case by case basis that the adolescent can understand the risks, benefits, and alternatives to the surgery with the same degree of competence as someone 18 years of age or older.

Dr. Monstrey reported having no financial disclosures.

cenews@frontlinemedcom.com

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