Combining Treatment Options for Scar Revision Often a Useful Approach

Doug Brunk

October 28, 2022

When Arisa E. Ortiz, MD, meets with patients who seek treatment options for scars, the first thing she explains is that she can't erase them.

Dr Arisa Ortiz

"It's important to manage expectations," Ortiz, director of laser and cosmetic dermatology at the University of California, San Diego, said at the annual meeting of the American Society for Dermatologic Surgery. "I tell them I can improve their scar and make it look less noticeable, but I can't make it look like normal skin. It's going to require multiple treatments. It's not a one-time thing; it's going to take several months to see the full benefit. And, it's an investment of time and money."

Nonablative, ablative, and fractional resurfacing stimulates dermal fibroblasts to replace lost collagen and elastin. Traditional lasers offer impressive clinical results for scars but are associated with significant preprocedural discomfort, prolonged recovery, and a significant risk of side effects, Ortiz said, while nonablative lasers are more tolerable with shorter recovery times.

Multiple sessions are required, and results are often less clinically impressive. "It's often difficult for patients to have a lot of downtime with each treatment so often I prefer to use the nonablative laser, especially for acne scarring," she said.

Mounting evidence suggests that the sooner scars are treated after they are formed, the better. That may not be feasible for patients with a long history of acne scars, but for surgical scars, Ortiz prefers to start treatment on the day of suture removal. "Whenever I do that, I always get better results," she said.

Outcomes may also improve by combining different treatment options, but the type of scar drives the type of modality to consider. There are red scars from postinflammatory erythema, hyperpigmented scars, hypopigmented scars, atrophic scars, hypertrophic scars, spread scars, pin cushion scars, and keloid scars, "which are the most difficult to treat," she said.

"When I'm using a combination approach, I start with the redness component of the scar, because you don't want to exacerbate nonspecific erythema, or it'll be difficult to see where the redness is. So, I always use vascular laser first, then a pigment-specific laser, followed by resurfacing, and augmentation with filler if needed."

Red scars generally fade with time, but that can take several months to more than a year. "If you use a laser, that can speed up the recovery," said Ortiz, who is the vice president of the American Society for Laser Medicine and Surgery. "A vascular laser will work, such as KTP, or intense pulsed light. Studies favor a low fluence and a short pulse duration. Pulsed dye laser (PDL) penetrates deeper than KTP, so theoretically you get a bit of collagen remodeling because it can increase TGF-beta [transforming growth factor–beta], so theoretically, PDL is a little bit better than KTP for red scars, but both will work."

In a comparative study, researchers used purpuric and nonpurpuric parameters to treat surgical scars but found no significant differences between the two treatment settings. "I tend to stick to short pulse duration and low fluence settings," said Ortiz, who was not affiliated with the study.

A separate, single-blinded, split scar study, which compared the efficacy of KTP to 595 nm PDL in reduction of erythema in surgical scars, found no significant difference between the two approaches. A review of available therapeutic lasers for acne scarring found that the thermal energy delivered by KTP extends only to the papillary dermis, making it useful for postinflammatory erythema without significant effects on collagen remodeling.

Hyperpigmentation

Use of concomitant bleaching cream can also help as a preventive strategy for hyperpigmentation. But one study of 100 patients found that pretreatment with a bleaching regimen prior to undergoing CO2 laser resurfacing made no significant difference in hyperpigmentation compared with those who received no pretreatment regimen.

When Ortiz is concerned about hyperpigmentation after laser treatment, she prescribes post-treatment tranexamic acid 325 mg twice daily for 6 months or longer. "I don't do any kind of workup or labs, but I do not prescribe it if a patient has increased risk of clotting," she said. Those at increased risk include smokers, those on birth control pills, those on hormonal supplementation, those with a current malignancy, and those with a history of a cerebrovascular accident or deep vein thrombosis.

Hypopigmented, Atrophic Scars

In Ortiz's clinical experience, hypopigmented scars respond well to treatment with the 1550 nonablative laser. "The idea is that you're removing some of the scarred collagen and it allows the melanocytes to migrate in and repigment," she said. Following laser treatment, consider applying topical bimatoprost 0.03% twice daily for at least 3 months to optimize results, she added.

For atrophic scars, options include subcision, laser treatment, radiofrequency microneedling, fillers, or biostimulators. "I caution against using permanent fillers because there is a higher risk of granuloma formation," Ortiz said. "I tend to use hyaluronic acid fillers, which have a low G prime. I inject superficially."

She shared a technique she learned from Mathew Avram, MD, JD, director of laser, cosmetics, and dermatologic surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston. It entails spreading the skin with one's fingers for a scar, especially an acne scar. "If it improves when you spread the skin, then you know it's amenable to laser treatment," Ortiz said.

"But if it doesn't improve when you spread the skin, it probably needs a little subcision. Insert an 18- or 20-gauge tribeveled hypodermic needle or an 18-gauge Nokor under the scar to sever the fibrous components that anchor the scar. This can take more than one treatment. I'll often do this immediately before resurfacing."

For hypertrophic scars, consider laser-assisted drug delivery, which creates vertical channels that assist the delivery of topically applied drugs into the skin. "You never want to use something that isn't meant to be injected into the skin because you can get a granulomatous reaction," she warned. "I often use topical triamcinolone acetonide, 5-FU, or poly-l-lactic acid."

Ortiz noted that botulinum toxin type A may be helpful for scars, despite the paucity of evidence regarding specific mechanisms of action. "There is some thought that it can modulate TGF-beta," she said. "It also may modulate collagen deposition. Currently we're looking into Botox alone for keloid scars. The initial results look just okay."

Ortiz disclosed that she has received consulting fees from Alastin, Cutera, and Sciton, and honoraria from BTL and Procter & Gamble. She is also a member of the advisory board for Aerolase, Allergan, Bausch Health, Endo, Galderma, Rodan + Fields, and Sciton, and has received equipment from BTL, Sciton, and SmartGraft.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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