Phalloplasty for Gender Affirmation
Phalloplasty is surgery for masculinizing gender affirmation. Phalloplasty is a multistaged process that may include a variety of procedures, including:
- Creating the penis
- Lengthening the urethra so you are able to stand to urinate
- Creating the tip (glans) of the penis
- Creating the scrotum
- Removing the vagina, uterus and ovaries
- Placing erectile and testicular implants
- Skin grafting from the donor tissue site
Gender affirmation surgery is customized to each individual. Your surgical plan may include more or fewer of these steps and procedures. Fan Liang, M.D., medical director of the Center for Transgender Health at Johns Hopkins, explains what you should know.
Are there different types of phalloplasty?
Phalloplasty involves using skin flaps, which are areas of skin moved from one area of the body to another. The skin flap is then reshaped, contoured and reattached to the groin to create the penis. There are three approaches the surgeon may use to construct the penis, using skin from the arm (radial forearm free flap), leg (anterolateral thigh flap) or side (latissimus dorsi flap).
There are pros and cons to each approach. Factors for choosing skin flap locations include the patient’s health and fat distribution, nerve function, blood flow and desired surgical outcomes.
What is a radial forearm free flap?
A radial forearm free flap (RFFF) involves taking the skin, fat, nerves, arteries and veins from your wrist to about halfway up your forearm to create the penis. Typically, the surgeon will use your nondominant hand so it is easier for you to recover and return to your day-to-day activities.
During your surgical consultation, the doctor will check the blood flow to your arm and hand noninvasively. This involves temporarily putting pressure on arteries then releasing the pressure to test blood distribution in the arm and hand.
There are three stages to this procedure.
- Stage 1: The first stage of an RFFF approach is creating the penis using tissue from the forearm. The area where the forearm tissue is taken will require a skin graft. This may occur at the time of the initial phalloplasty surgery, or it may occur three to five weeks afterward. If it occurs later, patients will have a temporary skin covering over the forearm to help it heal.
- Stage 2: The second stage, scheduled about five to six months later, may include lengthening the urethra to allow for urination out of the tip of the penis, creating the scrotum and removing the vagina, and other procedures depending on the patient’s individualized plan.
- Stage 3: The third stage of surgery involves putting in place testicle implants and an erectile device to help the patient achieve an erection. The third stage typically takes place 12 months after the second.
Will I have a say in how the phalloplasty is staged and the surgical plan?
Your gender affirmation surgery is highly personalized. Depending on what is most important to you, your surgery team will work with you on a customized plan beforehand. You and your surgeon will discuss your priorities and decide which procedures are right for you. Each stage will be scheduled to ensure your health and safety and provide the best chance of good results.
How long will I be in the hospital?
After your stage 1 surgery, you will stay as an inpatient for four to five days. Your surgical team will frequently monitor the blood supply to the tissue that has been used to create your new penis and ensure you are able to use the bathroom and walk around after surgery. Procedures for stages 2 and 3 do not require a hospital stay.
Will I need a catheter?
During your inpatient stay for stage 1 surgery, you will have a suprapubic tube that goes directly into your bladder and another catheter in your native urethra for at least five days. It is typically removed in the hospital before you go home.
If you decide not to have urethral lengthening as part of stage 2, you will have a Foley catheter placed in the operating room and removed before you leave the hospital. If you decide to have urethral lengthening, you will go home with a Foley catheter in the new urethra and a suprapubic tube. A clamp ensures that the urethra does not leak urine.
What is a suprapubic tube?
A suprapubic tube (SPT) allows urine to drain from your bladder. It is placed in the lower part of your abdomen, below the belly button. The SPT stays in for four to five weeks, depending on your healing and recovery.
When will my SPT be removed?
Before the SPT is removed, around four weeks after surgery, a urologist will perform a retrograde urethrogram. This involves putting dye into the bladder through the new urethra. An X-ray tracks the dye to see if the new urethra is open and ready for urination. If so, the doctor will clamp the SPT and you will be allowed to urinate from your new urethra. If everything looks good after a few days, the SPT is removed.
Other Skin Flaps Used in Phalloplasty
What is an anterolateral thigh flap?
An anterolateral thigh flap (ALT) uses skin, fat, nerves, arteries and veins from the leg to create a penis. A special vascular CT scan can help the surgeon examine the blood supply of each leg to determine which leg will be better for creating the skin flap.
The stage of the ALT phalloplasty are similar to the RFFF. The area where the thigh tissue is taken will also require a skin graft. The resulting scar on the thigh can be covered with shorts.
What is a musculocutaneous latissimus dorsi flap?
A musculocutaneous latissimus dorsi skin flap (MLD) involves the skin, fat, nerves, arteries and veins from the side of your back to create a penis. The surgeon may order a special CT scan to look at the blood flow throughout the donor site area.
The stages of the MLD phalloplasty are similar to the RFFF and ALT. However, the area from which the back tissue is taken usually does not require a skin graft and can be closed in a straight line. The scar can be covered with a shirt. Patients may experience some initial weakness raising their arm, but this improves with time.
How is penis size determined?
Penis size depends on patient preferences and the skin flap harvested from your body. Thinner patients with less fat on the skin flap will have a penis with less girth. Alternatively, patients with a greater amount of fat will have a thicker penis.
The length of the penis depends on the patient’s donor site, but typically it is about 5–6 inches. After the first stage, the penis may decrease in size as postoperative swelling decreases and the tissue settles into its new location.
What determines scrotum size?
Scrotum size is specific to the patient and depends on the amount of skin that is present in the genital area before phalloplasty. The more genital tissue there is, the larger the scrotum and the testicular implants can be.
There are different ways to create the scrotum, including a procedure called V-Y scrotoplasty, a technique that creates a pouch to hold testicular implants. AART silicone round carving blocks have been approved by the FDA to be used as implants.
Procedures to Discuss with Your Physician Before Phalloplasty
Each individual undergoing gender confirmation surgery is different. Your surgeon will work with you to discuss which procedures, and their timing, are best for you and your goals.
Should I have a hysterectomy before phalloplasty surgery?
For those interested in this procedure, hysterectomies are typically done before phalloplasty and do not require a vaginectomy.
Urethral Lengthening Before Phalloplasty
If you choose to have urethral lengthening, this procedure involves lengthening your existing urethra so that you are able to urinate out of the tip of the penis. It involves connecting your current urethra to the new urethra created in the shaft of the penis.
Not all patients choose to have urethral lengthening; however, this will be a necessary step if you want to stand when you urinate. It is also important to know that if you decide not to have urethral lengthening in stage 1 of your phalloplasty, it will not be possible to have the lengthening procedure later.
Complications of Urethral Lengthening
The most common complications for urethral lengthening include urethral strictures (narrowed areas of the urethra), fistula (creation of a passageway between the urethra and another location) and diverticula (formation of a pouch in the urethra). This may require an additional surgical procedure to fix.
What is a metoidioplasty?
A metoidioplasty is a surgical procedure to achieve masculine-appearing genitalia with fewer steps than a phalloplasty. The skin of the labia and around the clitoris is lengthened to achieve the appearance of a penis. Some people prefer to undergo a metoidioplasty if they do not want to use tissue from their arms or legs to create a penis or if they prefer a shorter, more straightforward surgery.
A metoidioplasty procedure has a quicker recovery and fewer complications. Surgeons can discuss metoidioplasty with patients and help them decide if this option is right for them.
Will I need to have hair removal?
Yes, before surgery, after you consult with the surgical team and choose a skin flap site, you will get a template for hair removal that you can give to your hair removal professional.
What if I have a tattoo on my preferred donor site?
As long as there is good blood flow and nerve function, donor sites — even those with a tattoo — can be used.
Penile Function and Sensation After Phalloplasty
What can I do with a reconstructed penis?
Penis function is determined by what you and your surgery team agree on for your surgical plan. If it is important for you to urinate out of the tip of your penis, then urethral lengthening may be a good choice for you. If sensation is most important, your team will focus on a donor site with good nerve innervation. If penetrative sex is most important, and you would like to maintain an erection, then implanting an erectile prosthetic can be part of your surgery plan.
Can I get an erection after phalloplasty?
In stage 3 phalloplasty, a urologist can place a prosthetic erectile device which will allow you to maintain an erection. As of September 2022, no implantable prosthetic devices have been FDA-approved for phalloplasty. Instead, the surgeon can use a device intended for patients with erectile dysfunction to allow transmasculine patients to achieve an erection. There is a risk of infection and implant rejection with an erectile implant. If this happens, it may take six months before another device can be placed into the penis.
What kind of sensation and feeling can I expect?
Sensation recovery varies by patient. Nerve regeneration can begin as early as three weeks after surgery, but it can take longer in some patients. Sometimes sensation can take up to a year or longer. Return of nerve sensation is not guaranteed. As nerves regenerate and strengthen connections, you might experience shooting pain, tingling or electrical sensations. As time goes on, the tingling feeling begins to subside.
What is nerve hookup during phalloplasty?
Nerve hookup involves taking existing nerves from the donor site, such as the arm, and connecting them to nerves located in the pelvis. This allows you to have sensation in the reconstructed penis.
What is clitoral burying during phalloplasty surgery?
Clitoral burying involves moving the clitoris into the base of the penis to increase sensation. This is typically done at stage 2.
Is orgasm possible after phalloplasty?
Orgasm is possible after phalloplasty, especially if your surgery plan emphasizes preserving sensation. It is important to note that your penis will not ejaculate with semen at the time of orgasm.