Phalloplasty: Overview

Gender-affirming surgery to construct a penis

A phalloplasty, also called transmasculine bottom surgery, is the surgical construction (or in less common cases, reconstruciton) of a penis using a skin graft from a patient's forearm, thigh, or upper back. While potentially rewarding both physically and psychologically, the decision to undergo a phalloplasty requires ample thought and consideration. There are multiple risks involved, the surgery is extremely challenging, and the preparation and healing process is extensive.

What Is Phalloplasty?

A phalloplasty is done in a hospital under general anesthesia by a plastic surgeon and/or a urologist. Most commonly, this inpatient surgery is performed in transgender men or non-binary people as a type of gender-affirming surgery. Less commonly, the surgery is performed in cisgender men who were born without a penis or who lost their penis through injury, infection, or cancer.

Fundamentally, the creation of a penis, called a neophallus, involves making a tube within a tube:

  • The inside tube is the urethra, through which urinate flows out of the body.
  • The outside tube is the penile shaft.

Once the neophallus is constructed, it is surgically attached to the pelvis with the new urethra being connected to the patient's existing urethra. The exterior of the neophallus is then sculpted to resemble a penis shaft and head.

Various Surgical Approaches

A phalloplasty may be performed as a single-stage or multi-stage process:

  • A single-stage phalloplasty involves the simultaneous construction of the phallus and urethra, as well as the connection of the urethra. Where relevant, it also involves the creation of a scrotum and insertion of testicular prostheses. All of this is done as a single procedure, although any penile prostheses are put in at a later date. A single-stage surgery may be favored for patients who have to travel a significant distance for surgery.
  • A multi-stage phalloplasty breaks the surgery down into parts. This is typically preferred by surgeons and is much more common, as it allows for more detailed management of each aspect of the surgery.

Single-stage procedures tend to have fewer complications. That said, many individuals who undergo a phalloplasty will need one or more revision surgeries, regardless of whether the procedure was initially intended to be single- or multi-stage.

Flap Types Used in Surgery

In order to create the penis, the surgeon will use a section of skin and tissue (called a flap) from another part of the patient's body. There are different types of flaps that can be used during a phalloplasty.

In the United States, the most common flap used is the radial forearm free-flap (RFF). This involves harvesting a large rectangle of skin from one of the patient's forearms.

The main advantages of a forearm flap are that it's relatively large, easy to harvest, and sensitive to touch.

The main disadvantages are the following:

  • The color of the forearm flap may be quite different from the genital skin.
  • Since the forearm must be covered with a skin graft from one of the thighs, there will be a scar in two places that may be quite visible, depending on what the patient wears.
  • The forearm flap requires the surgeon to be skilled in microsurgery, since the flap is fully removed from the arm and needs to be reconnected to the nerves and blood supply near the groin. Such surgeons may be harder to access if you live in certain locations.

A flap from the muscle located on your back, called the latissimus dorsi flap, may also be used to create a penis. Research suggests that this flap provides a good volume of the newly constructed penis, fulfilling both aesthetic and functional requirements.

However, the latissimus dorsi flap is thick, so it can only be used to create the penis, not the urethra. Therefore, a urethra would need to be constructed in subsequent stages.

Anterolateral thigh flaps are also used for phalloplasty. Unlike radial arm and latissimus dorsi flaps, these flaps stay connected to their original blood supply. This means that they do not require microsurgery expertise on the part of the surgeon performing the phalloplasty.

That said, thigh flaps have a thicker layer of fat, making it harder to roll them into a tube to shape the penis. Similar to the latissimus dorsi flap, the thigh flap also cannot often be used to construct a urethra.

Criteria and Contraindications

Undergoing a phalloplasty and other masculinizing surgeries (e.g., hysterectomy, vaginectomy) is a lifelong, time-intensive decision. 

In order to aid surgeons in determining who is a proper candidate for phalloplasty and other gender-affirming surgeries, the World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH) has created a standard of care set of guidelines.

These WPATH criteria require that the patient:

  • Has two referral letters from qualified mental health professionals
  • Is of the age of majority (which is 18 in most states)
  • Has persistent, well-documented gender dysphoria
  • Has the capacity to make a well-informed decision
  • Has any medical and/or mental health conditions well-controlled

In addition, patients are expected to live as a man and undergo continuous hormone (testosterone) therapy for at least one year prior to surgery.

Additional contraindications include:

Potential Risks

Some of the risks associated with undergoing a phalloplasty include:

  • Wound infection or dehiscence
  • Pelvic or groin hematomas
  • Rectal injury
  • Partial or total flap loss
  • Urethral fistula (when the urethra becomes open to the skin, causing urine to leak)
  • Urethral stricture (when the urethra becomes too narrow to carry urine)

Purpose of Phalloplasty

Phalloplasty is most commonly performed in transgender men or non-binary people as part of their surgical transition.

Less commonly, phalloplasty may be indicated in cisgender men who:

  • Were born without a penis, with an abnormally small penis (penile hypoplasia), or with ambiguous genitalia
  • Underwent a circumcision-related injury
  • Lost or severely injured their penis, often through a car or heavy moving machinery accident, burn incident, or blast injury (e.g., explosive device injury or mine blast)
  • Experienced sexual partner-inflicted penile injury or mutilation
  • Had an infection of their penis (e.g., balanitis or necrotizing fasciitis)
  • Had penile cancer that required surgical removal of their penis

How to Prepare

Preparation for a phalloplasty begins over a year prior to undergoing the operation with the initiation of testosterone therapy.

Besides taking hormone therapy for a year and fulfilling the other aforementioned criteria set forth by the WPATH, you will need to:

  • Have your uterus (hysterectomy) and ovaries (oophorectomy) surgically removed at least eight weeks prior to phalloplasty, if applicable
  • Stop smoking
  • Lose weight if your BMI is greater than 35
  • Adopt a high protein diet at least one month prior to surgery
  • Undergo permanent hair removal (depending on the flap donor site chosen by your surgeon)

Moreover, as your surgery date gets closer, you may be advised to stop the following medications:

  • Testosterone therapy (about three weeks prior)
  • Blood-thinning medications like aspirin or ibuprofen (about one week prior)

What to Expect on the Day of Surgery

On the day of your phalloplasty surgery, you will arrive at the hospital and be taken to a pre-operative room. Here, you will change into a hospital gown, and a nurse will take your vital signs and place a peripheral IV.

Once in the operating room, an anesthesiologist will administer medications to put you to sleep. You will not experience any pain during or remember anything after the surgery.

Overall, a phalloplasty is a very complex and lengthy surgery, taking up to eight hours. What occurs during the surgery is unique to each patient, depending on their goals and/or underlying reason for having the surgery.

Generally speaking and as applicable, however, the following procedures are usually performed before, along with, or after a phalloplasty surgery:

  • Urethroplasty: Creation of a tube (the new urethra) within the new penis and lengthening of the existing urethra in order to connect the two
  • Vaginectomy: Removal of the vagina
  • Glansplasty: Shaping of the glans to create a circumcised-looking penis
  • Scrotoplasty: Creation of the scrotum (this is usually done using the skin of the outer labia)
  • Clitoroplasty: Burying the clitoris under the base of the new penis
  • Testicular prostheses: Placing implants in the testicles in order to enhance the appearance of the scrotum
  • Penile prostheses: Placing a penile implant, which allows the patient to have an erection and penetrative intercourse

Recovery

After a phalloplasty, you will be taken to a post-anesthesia care unit (PACU) where you will wake up from anesthesia. You can then expect to recover in the hospital for five to seven days.

During your stay in the hospital, you will likely do the following:

  • Take a blood thinner and/or wear compression boots to prevent blood clots in your legs
  • Start drinking and eating, as tolerated, approximately 24 hours after surgery
  • Have your groin and scrotum drains removed around postoperative day five
  • Have the Foley catheter in your penis removed before leaving the hospital
  • Wear supportive underwear, often provided by a surgical team
  • Begin walking with the assistance of a physical therapist

Moreover, your surgical team will perform regular checks on your new penis during your hospital stay to ensure it is receiving a healthy blood supply.

Once discharged from the hospital, the surgeon will give you various post-operative instructions, such as:

  • How to care for your groin/penile dressings, donor flap site, and suprapubic catheter (this will stay in for several weeks after surgery).
  • Taking various medications to control symptoms like pain, nausea, and constipation.
  • Avoiding certain activities for a period of time (e.g., smoking for at least one month and moderate activities for at least six weeks).
  • Arranging for a caregiver to help with both personal care and household chores.

Long-Term Care

While undergoing a phalloplasty is a major decision, research has found that transgender people who have undergone the operation are overall highly satisfied.

After surgery though, it's important that patients remain devoted to their follow-up care, which includes:

Additionally, patients who receive penile implants after a phalloplasty may develop complications related to the implant, such as device failure or infection. These problems can occur immediately after implantation or several years out, and they require removal or replacement of the implant. Because of this, close follow-up with your surgeon is needed.

A Word From Verywell

If you are considering a phalloplasty, besides gaining as much knowledge as you can about the surgery, it's also a good idea to create a support network. This network may include loved ones and individuals who have already undergone the surgery. You likely will need emotional guidance as you navigate a phalloplasty procedure.

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