What to Know About Surgical Scars

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What Is a Surgical Scar?

A scar is a visible sign of a healed wound. Scars occur as a result of injury or surgery. Everyone makes scars, but some people are at increased risk of scarring. Also, some surgical procedures cause larger, more noticeable scars. You can’t completely prevent scars, but there are steps you can take to reduce their size and appearance. Before you have surgery, talk to your doctor about your surgical options and ask about your risk of scarring. Read on to learn what you need to know about scarring after surgery.

Can Surgical Scars Be Prevented?

Scars are an unavoidable side effect of surgery. You usually can’t prevent scars, but certain surgical techniques can produce smaller, less noticeable scars. Laparoscopic surgery and other minimally invasive techniques are examples. Compared to open surgery, which involves a larger incision, minimally invasive surgery involves smaller incisions, so scarring is less. It also allows for a faster recovery and less pain than open surgery. Minimally invasive surgery is not always an option. Ask your doctor if you are a candidate. 

What Are the Types of Surgical Scars?

Scars come in different sizes, shapes and colors. They may be raised or recessed. They can be barely noticeable or unsightly, painful and debilitating. There are four main types of scars:

  • Contractures are large scars that pull areas of skin and sometimes underlying tissues causing tightness and limiting movement. Burn scars cause contracture.

  • Ice pick or pitted scars usually result from acne or blistering diseases such as chickenpox.

  • Keloid scars grow beyond the boundaries of the original wound or incision. They are the result of overproduction of collagen cells during healing. Keloid scars can be discolored, thick, elevated and irregular. They sometimes cause pain. Be sure to notify your surgeon before your procedure if you are prone to form keloids.

  • Hypertrophic scars are similar to keloid scars except that they are confined to the original boundaries of the wound or incision.

Can Scars Be Minimized After Surgery?

Here are some things you can do to help your wound heal and minimize scarring:

  • Follow your doctor’s instructions on caring for your incision.

  • Watch for signs of infection. If your wound becomes red, swollen, painful, or has a foul-smelling discharge, call your doctor immediately.

  • Avoid sun exposure. Wear protective clothing and sunscreen.

  • Ask your doctor if it is safe to massage your scar after the wound has healed. Massaging the wound after it has healed may even out any bumps that remain.

  • Maintain a healthy lifestyle. Don’t smoke, avoid alcohol and other dehydrating beverages, and eat a healthy diet rich in protein. Also, take care of your chronic medical conditions.

  • Ask your doctor if you are a candidate for silicone dressings or steroid injections. Silicone gel sheets are sticky clear pads that go over the wound. They can speed healing and make scars less red and painful. Steroid injections may help prevent the formation of keloid scars. 

Can the Appearance of Surgical Scars Be Improved?

You doctor may be able to treat your scar, depending on the type of scar you have and where it’s located. Some scars respond to a single technique. Others require a combination of different treatments to achieve the best results. 

Scar minimizing treatments include:

  • Topical treatments, such as silicone gels, tapes, or external compression bandages, can aid wound closure and healing, and reduce irregular pigment.

  • Injectable treatments, such as collagen, can fill depressed or concave scars. Results are usually temporary and require repeated treatments. Steroid injections may help flatten scars that stick out, such as keloids or hypertrophic scars.

  • Surface treatments can minimize small scars, soften surface irregularities, and reduce uneven pigmentation. Surface treatments include dermabrasion, laser or light therapy, chemical peel solutions, and skin bleaching agents.

  • Scar revision surgery involves cutting or punching out the scar and rejoining the skin. Sometimes, doctors use skin or fat from another part of the body to fill in the scar. You will still have a scar, but the new scar should be smaller and less noticeable than the original scar. Advanced techniques can reposition a scar so that it is less noticeable and improve flexibility where a scar has restricted mobility.

Give your body enough time to heal after surgery. It is best to wait at least a year before considering scar-minimizing treatments. Many scars become less noticeable over time. 

Which Provider Should I See?

A plastic surgeon or dermatologic surgeon can evaluate your scar and provide recommendations. Plastic surgeons specialize in correcting physical defects that affect a person's appearance or ability to function. Dermatologists specialize in the medical and surgical care of the skin, hair and nails.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Sep 9
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.

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