Background: Free radial forearm flap (FRFF) reconstruction is a valuable technique in head and neck surgery, which allows closure of large defects while striving to maintain functionality. Anticoagulative drugs are often administered to improve flap survival, although evidence regarding effectiveness is lacking. Objective of review: To investigate the effectiveness of postoperative anticoagulants to improve survival of the FRFF in head and neck reconstruction. Type of review: Systematic review and multicentre, individual patient data meta-analysis. Search strategy: MEDLINE, EMBASE, Web of Science and CINAHL were searched for synonyms of 'anticoagulants' and 'free flap reconstruction'. Evaluation method: Studies were critically appraised for directness of evidence and risk of bias. Authors of the highest quality publications were invited to submit their original data for meta-analysis. Results: Five studies were of adequate quality, and data from four studies (80%) were available for meta-analysis, describing 759 FRFF procedures. Anticoagulants used were as follows: aspirin (12%), low molecular weight dextran (18.3%), unfractioned heparin (28.1%), low molecular weight heparin (49%) and prostaglandin-E1 (2.1%). Thirty-one per cent did not receive anticoagulants. Flap failure occurred in 40 of 759 patients (5.3%) On univariate analysis, use of unfractioned heparin was associated with a higher rate of flap failure. However, these regimens were often administered to patients who had revision surgery of the anastomosis. In multivariate logistic regression analysis, anticoagulant use was not associated with improved flap survival or flap-related complications. Conclusions: The studied anticoagulative drugs did not improve FRFF survival or lower the rate of flap-related complications. In addition, some anticoagulants may cause systemic complications.
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