An analysis of facial nerve function in irradiated and unirradiated facial nerve grafts

Paul D. Brown, Jeffrey S. Eshlem an, Robert L. Foote, Scott E. Strome

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46 Scopus citations


Purpose: The effect of high-dose radiation therapy on facial nerve grafts is controversial. Some authors believe radiotherapy is so detrimental to the outcome of facial nerve graft function that dynamic or static slings should be performed instead of facial nerve grafts in all patients who are to receive postoperative radiation therapy. Unfortunately, the facial function achieved with dynamic and static slings is almost always inferior to that after facial nerve grafts. In this retrospective study, we compared facial nerve function in irradiated and unirradiated nerve grafts. Methods and Materials: The medical records of 818 patients with neoplasms involving the parotid gland who received treatment between 1974 and 1997 were reviewed, of whom 66 underwent facial nerve grafting. Fourteen patients who died or had a recurrence less than a year after their facial nerve graft were excluded. The median follow-up for the remaining 52 patients was 10.6 years. Cable nerve grafts were performed in 50 patients and direct anastomoses of the facial nerve in two. Facial nerve function was scored by means of the House- Brackmann (H-B) facial grading system. Twenty-eight of the 52 patients received postoperative radiotherapy. The median time from nerve grafting to start of radiotherapy was 5.1 weeks. The median and mean doses of radiation were 6000 and 6033 cGy, respectively, for the irradiated grafts. One patient received preoperative radiotherapy to a total dose of 5000 cGy in 25 fractions and underwent surgery 1 month after the completion of radiotherapy. This patient was placed, by convention, in the irradiated facial nerve graft cohort. Results: Potential prognostic factors for facial nerve function such as age, gender, extent of surgery at the time of nerve grafting, preoperative facial nerve palsy, duration of preoperative palsy if present, or number of previous operations in the parotid bed were relatively well balanced between irradiated and unirradiated patients. However, the irradiated graft group had a greater proportion of patients with pathologic evidence of nerve invasion (p = 0.007) and unfavorable type of nerve graft (p = 0.04). Although the irradiated graft cohort had more potentially negative prognostic factors, there was no difference in functional outcome (H-B Grade III or IV) between irradiated and unirradiated graft patients. H-B Grades III, IV, V, and VI were the best postoperative facial nerve functions achieved in 35%, 39%, 13%, and 13% of patients, respectively. The patient with preoperative radiotherapy never recovered any facial nerve function (H-B Grade VI). Median time to best facial nerve function after surgery was longer in the irradiated patients (13.1 vs. 10.8 months), but this was not statistically significant (p = 0.10). Presence of preoperative facial nerve palsy (p = 0.005), duration of preoperative palsy (p = 0.003), and age greater than 60 years at the time of grafting (p = 0.04) were all negative prognostic factors for achieving a functional facial nerve on univariate analysis. Analysis of age as a continuous variable (p = 0.12) and pathologic evidence of nerve invasion (p = 0.1) revealed a trend toward negative prognostic factors. Gender, number of previous operations in the parotid bed, extent of surgery at the time of nerve grafting, and type of grafting procedure were not significant prognostic factors. Whether radiotherapy was delivered less than 6 weeks after nerve grafting or more than 6 weeks had no impact on achievement of a functional facial nerve. Conclusion: Negative prognostic factors for achieving a functional facial nerve in our series include the presence of preoperative facial nerve palsy, duration of preoperative palsy, and age greater than 60 years. Radiotherapy was not a negative prognostic factor. Comparing irradiated and unirradiated grafts revealed no difference in best facial nerve function achieved, despite the presence of a greater proportion of negative prognostic factors in the irradiated group. Therefore, planned postoperative radiation therapy is not a contraindication to facial nerve grafting. Consideration for regeneration of the facial nerve should not influence the timing of postoperative radiotherapy, because early initiation of radiotherapy after facial nerve grafting did not have a deleterious effect on facial nerve function. However, the time required to attain best facial nerve function postoperatively may be slightly longer in irradiated patients. (C) 2000 Elsevier Science Inc.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)737-743
Number of pages7
JournalInternational Journal of Radiation Oncology Biology Physics
Issue number3
StatePublished - Oct 1 2000


  • Facial nerve
  • Facial nerve transplantation
  • Parotid neoplasms
  • Radiation effects
  • Radiotherapy

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Radiation
  • Oncology
  • Radiology Nuclear Medicine and imaging
  • Cancer Research


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