As with any type of surgery, hand transplant surgery presents both benefits and risks. Below are some of the major factors that upper extremity transplant candidates should consider. For a more thorough discussion of the benefits and risks of hand and arm transplant surgery, please read our Hand Transplant Patient Guide.
The potential benefits of hand and arm transplant surgery are unique and life changing. Here are a few of these significant benefits:
Improved functionality – Hand/arm transplant surgery can restore the physical functionality of the hands/arms, including tactile sensation, the ability to perform daily activities such as eating, drinking, brushing teeth, shaving, driving, grasping objects, riding a bicycle, using the telephone, and writing. Transplanted hands allow patients to express themselves, touch their loved ones and shake hands. Depending on the level of amputation, this return of function may vary quite significantly.
Restoration of appearance - Hand and arm transplant surgery restores a near-normal appearance to the patient’s upper extremity, which can help patients regain the confidence to return to their former lifestyles, including jobs and social activities.
Any type of surgery presents risks, but there are certain risks that tend to be specific to hand and arm transplant surgery, or transplant surgery in general, including:
Rejection - The possibility exists that a hand/arm transplant will be rejected by the patient’s immune system. If this occurs, the transplanted hand will have to be removed and alternatives will be discussed, including another hand transplant at a later time. Although this is a relatively new procedure – with a total of 30 single-hand transplants and 21 double-hand transplants performed since 1998 (as of 01/28/13) – it is notable that no hand transplant patients who consistently have taken their immunosuppressive medications have lost their transplanted hands due to rejection.
Increased pain and discomfort – When compared to the alternatives (doing nothing or using a prosthesis), the patient undergoing hand/arm transplantation will experience more post-operative pain and discomfort. Patients will likely experience a 10-day hospital stay and blood draws will be frequently necessary to monitor the levels of immunosuppressive medications.
Psychological issues - As the hands and arms are used continuously during the day, there is a concern that the patient may have difficulty adjusting to the new limbs. The patient may also feel anxiety when dealing with the reactions of friends and family to the physical change.
Functionality issues – It is possible that after upper extremity transplantation the patients will experience persistent deficits in hand/arm motion, limiting the functionality of the transplanted hand/arm.
Drug side-effects – The medications used to help prevent rejection of donated hands/arms, or any type of transplanted tissue or organ, increase a patient’s risk for developing infections, diabetes and certain types of cancer. Read our Hand Transplant Patient Guide to learn more about the estimates for each risk and what we do to counter these risks.