Kinder, Gentler Liposuction: More Like Massage Than Surgery

From the WebMD Archives

March 2, 2001 (Washington) -- A new type of liposuction device could make getting the body-slimming procedure a less weighty matter. Using a power-assisted cannula, or tube, that moves back and forth up to 5,000 times a minute, doctors can now suck out the fat while the patient actually enjoys it.

"[This is] the future of liposuction," William Coleman III, MD, of New Orleans' Tulane University, told an audience in D.C. this week for the American Academy of Dermatology's 2001 Annual Meeting. "I don't think [patients] are comparing it to the pleasure and relaxed feeling you have during a massage, but I think what they're saying to us is, it's not a painful thing."

The old manual approach required the physician to push the tube into the patient, up to 10 inches at a time, breaking up fatty deposits and then extracting them with a vacuum pump -- a painful and exhausting process for both patients and doctors.

"This power-assisted liposuction is far more precise than could ever be achieved manually," Coleman tells WebMD. "It truly is sculpting."

The technique is considered particularly valuable in difficult-to-reach areas, including the breasts, inner thighs, and around the bellybutton.

The FDA approved the device about two years ago, according to Coleman, who says it has been used successfully on tens of thousands of patients. At the meeting, however, he reported findings from a 90-patient, multicenter study -- the first such study designed to assess exactly how effective the device is.

The results show the power-boosted cannula removes 30% more fat than the traditional manual one. In addition, 54% of patients who underwent powered liposuction on one side of their body and manual liposuction on the other side said they preferred the newer approach -- 46% had no preference, and no one said he would rather have the manual technique.

Not only was the fat removed quicker with the new system, Coleman says, there was less bruising and faster healing.

Any surgical procedure comes with some risk, Coleman points out. Among the more common side effects of old-style liposuction are burns and skin infection. And although a recent study found that liposuction carries a small but definite risk of death, Coleman disputes that finding.

"Most plastic surgeons really repudiate that study, and many of those deaths [are] cases done in hospitals with anesthesiologists in attendance; [therefore,] as I say, they were plastic surgery deaths," dermatologist Coleman says.

One plastic surgeon contacted by WebMD had a different dispute, questioning whether dermatologists even have sufficient training to do liposuction. According to Rafael Convit, MD, liposuction can lead to life-threatening complications and poor aesthetic results, and in many cases, dermatologists aren't even allowed to do the operation in a hospital.

"They are doing it in their offices just like an internist can do brain surgery, if they do it in their office ... I'm not sure that dermatologists are the type of surgeon that should be doing a lot of liposuction, if any at all," Convit, a plastic surgeon in private practice, tells WebMD.

Convit says that patients should take extra care to make sure that their doctor has the right credentials and enough experience to do liposuction.

The new method won't give a person a perfect body, Coleman says. Rather, he says, the end result is more like having spot-reduced 10 pounds or so. And surgery is still no substitute for diet and exercise, he says -- both in losing weight initially and in keeping it off after liposuction.

Also, according to the multicenter study, most doctors need about seven tries with the new device before they become thoroughly competent with the high-speed machine.

It's estimated that as much as 90% of all liposuction patients are women. Most of the operations are strictly cosmetic, although liposuction can be used to treat fatty lumps, large breasts in men, and glands that produce excess amounts of sweat. You can expect the new powered procedure to cost anywhere from $2,000 to $10,000.