Liposuction is a very popular, safe, and effective procedure. However, any type of surgery entails certain side effects and potential complications. While liposuction has a very low risk profile, it’s good to be proactive and educate yourself before scheduling an appointment.
In this article, Drs. Gary D. Breslow and Jordan P. Farkas of The Breslow Center for Plastic Surgery in Paramus, New Jersey cover some of the most common questions patients ask about the risks involved in undergoing liposuction surgery.
Is Liposuction Dangerous?
Liposuction is a very common body contouring procedure that involves the mobilization and removal of local fat deposits under the surface of the skin. Liposuction is considered a surgical procedure, and while it may involve a certain number of side effects, major complications are extremely rare.
But first, let’s clarify the difference between a side effect and a complication. Although patients often use these two terms interchangeably, they mean different things to a physician.
A side effect is a necessary, but generally undesirable, effect of a treatment. Side effects are balanced against benefits of treatment, and care should only proceed when the expected side effects are both less than the benefits of treatment, and acceptable to an individual patient.
For instance, liposuction requires small, strategically placed incisions in order to access and remove fat deposits with a cannula (as seen in the picture above). This will hurt as it heals, and leave a small scar. This is undesirable, but if an individual patient feels that a small scar is an acceptable trade-off for having a local fat deposit reduced, then it’s reasonable to undergo the procedure.
A complication is an unanticipated and undesirable effect of a treatment. While complication rates overall are known, they are not predictable for an individual patient. However, some individual attributes or “risk factors” like smoking, obesity, or age make complications more likely to occur.
For instance, some people are more prone to form hypertrophic scars, and might have more visible scars than others after surgery. Most surgeons will screen for this predisposition during the preoperative consult.
What Are the Most Common Liposuction Side Effects and Complications?
In a localized fat deposit, fat cells form in small droplets called “lobules” within a network of tiny blood vessels, nerves, and connective tissue.
Liposuction gives the best results when only the fat droplets are removed. If the blood vessels are disrupted it can cause bruising, and if the nerves are disrupted it can cause pain. Damage to the connective tissue can cause puckering or scarring.
A normal side effect of liposuction will include some disruption to all three of these structures, but usually only in a very minor way. Any patient who chooses to undergo liposuction can therefore expect some bruising, some swelling, a small scar, and some pain or discomfort that resolves within 1-2 weeks.
Any surgical procedure carries the risk of common complications, namely scar formation, infection, and body fluids collecting where the operation was performed.
Complications more specific to liposuction include contour irregularities, persistent swelling, irregular pigmentation, and excess or loose skin. Skin necrosis is another highly unlikely complication, and is often associated with smoking.
By far the most common complication following liposuction is an undesirable result called a “contour deformity,” where the skin appears wavy, puckered, lumpy or withered. This is usually because the fat was removed unevenly by an unskilled practitioner, but may also occur when a patient has poor skin elasticity or formed more scar tissue than would be routinely expected.
How Common Is Contour Deformity?
Because it’s a complex 3D aesthetic procedure, liposuction is often referred to “body sculpting” or “body contouring.”
The liposuction technique used at The Breslow Center, which is know as the SAFELipo (Separation, Aspiration and Fat Equalization) approach, is a form of power-assisted liposuction that significantly reduces the likelihood of contour irregularities.
In fact, a recent study published by the American Society of Plastic Surgeons found no instances of major complications among 129 patients treated between 2006 and 2011. It also found SAFELipo to be a reliably effective liposuction technique, with zero instances of contour deformity in patients studied.
Does Liposuction Hurt?
Liposuction is performed under general anesthesia, and with an infusion of local anesthesia. In most cases, Ibuprofen is enough to keep the pain in check after the procedure, while also helping to alleviate some swelling. If over the counter relief isn’t enough, you may be prescribed a stronger pain management medication.
Contact your surgeon’s office promptly after a liposuction procedure if you experience any of the following symptoms:
- Signs of infection (i.e. redness, heat or pain) that last more than a week or that appear to be getting worse
- Significant pain that is not relieved by routine aftercare (i.e. anti-inflammatories and pain meds)
- Severe swelling or bruising that does not get better after a week
- Weakness in your arm muscles or fingers
When Does Liposuction Swelling Peak?
Because liposuction is often paired with other cosmetic treatments, recovery time can vary. Most patients return to work within a few days following liposuction alone, although you can expect to feel sore for 1-2 weeks.
Swelling starts within 1-2 days of the procedure, gradually increases for 10-14 days, then peaks and begins to recede. Swelling usually resolves after 8 weeks. Compression garments are sometimes recommended to help improve healing and expedite recovery.
Note that there still may be changes for several months. For instance, the skin can continue to remodel and tighten for up to a year.
Does Liposuction Cause the Skin to Itch?
Itching is common in healing tissues. Some patients complain of itching after liposuction as the localized numbness from the procedure wears off and the nerves begin to wake up.
In such cases, over-the-counter antihistamines like Benadryl may be recommended.
How Bad Are Liposuction Scars?
Most patients have a small, barely noticeable scars of less than 8mm at each liposuction site. Scars usually turn pale and fade within 1-3 years.
However, around 1.3% of patients will form more noticeable or “hypertrophic” scars. If you are prone to this type of scarring, you will likely already know from past experience. In any case, your surgeon will advise you on how to prevent and minimize the appearance of scars.
When Is Liposuction Not an Option?
Just as surgeons are required to explain the side effects and risks of complication to their patients, they also have a responsibility to refuse surgery when they think the risk of a complication is too high.
A surgeon might refuse to perform liposuction on patients with the following medical conditions:
- Restricted blood flow to the site of the operation
- Coronary artery disease
- Obesity or excess visceral fat
- A weakened immune system
Drs. Gary D. Breslow and Jordan P. Farkas have successfully performed liposuction on countless patients from New Jersey and beyond — feel free to reach out to us if you have any further questions.
Additional Reading and References
- Liposuction.com: SAFELipo
- American Society of Plastic Surgeons: Liposuction Risks and Safety
- Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery Journal: Liposuction — Evidence-Based Medicine