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Liposuction

Key points

  • Liposuction is surgery to remove unwanted body fat using suction.
  • Check your surgeon’s qualifications and make sure that he or she is registered with the General Medical Council.
  • There are different techniques for carrying out liposuction. Discuss with your surgeon which one is most suitable for you.
  • It’s important to be aware of the limitations as well as the benefits of liposuction.

How should I go about choosing a surgeon?

Make sure you find a plastic surgeon who is trained to carry out liposuction, although there is no single qualification for this. Get advice from your GP about surgeons in your area and check whether the surgeon is registered on the General Medical Council’s specialist register. It’s also important to find out if your surgeon is registered with either the British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons (BAAPS) or the British Association of Plastic Reconstructive and Aesthetic Surgeons (BAPRAS).

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Liposuction is an operation to remove unwanted body fat to change the shape of your body.

You will meet the surgeon carrying out your procedure to discuss your care. It may differ from what is described here as it will be designed to meet your individual needs.

About liposuction

Liposuction, also known as lipoplasty, liposculpture or suction assisted lipectomy, is an operation in which excess fat is sucked out from under your skin. It can remove fat that you haven’t been able to lose by eating a healthy diet and exercising. It’s best for losing localised bulges of fat. Liposuction isn’t a treatment for weight control or obesity, and should only be done when you’re as close to your ideal weight as possible. It can’t remove cellulite or stretch marks.

Liposuction works best if your skin is elastic enough to shrink afterwards and take up the space where the fat has been removed. Because no skin is removed in liposuction, if it doesn’t shrink properly afterwards, you will have skin folds.

You can have liposuction on your abdomen (tummy), hips, buttocks, neck, arms, thighs, knees and ankles. There is a limit to the amount of fat that can be safely removed from any area of your body, so it may not be possible to reduce an area as much as you would like. Your body won’t replace the fat cells, so you should have a lasting change in your body shape, especially if you exercise, eat a healthy diet and maintain a healthy weight after liposuction. However, if you put on weight after liposuction, fat may develop in areas where you had it removed as well as other places.

Getting advice about liposuction

It’s important not to rush into the decision to have cosmetic surgery. Discuss your options with your GP, who may be able to recommend a surgeon or advise you on how to choose a hospital to be treated in.

Make sure that your surgeon is registered on the General Medical Council’s specialist register and check whether he or she is a member of either the British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons (BAAPS) or the British Association of Plastic Reconstructive and Aesthetic Surgeons (BAPRAS). Be very careful of advertisements offering cheap procedures. See our frequently asked questions for more information.

It’s a good idea to do some research about liposuction and prepare some questions to ask your surgeon when you go for your consultation. Before deciding to go ahead with liposuction, it’s important to discuss with your surgeon what you hope to gain from the operation and the results you can realistically expect. He or she should also explain the risks and give you an idea of any pain you can expect, as well as giving you information about alternatives to liposuction.

What are the alternatives to liposuction?

If you want to lose fat from your abdomen, an alternative to liposuction may be a tummy tuck (abdominoplasty). This involves removing excess fat and skin from your abdomen. However, a tummy tuck is also not a treatment for obesity.

New techniques are being developed that use lasers and ultrasound to break up fat without the need for it to be sucked out. Instead your body reabsorbs it. However, more research is needed to find out how safe and effective these procedures are compared with liposuction.

Many creams, diet supplements and beauty treatments claim to reduce stubborn areas of fat or even cellulite. However, there is no scientific evidence that they work.

Preparing for liposuction

Your surgeon will explain how to prepare for your operation. For example, if you smoke, you may be asked to stop, as smoking increases your risk of getting a chest and wound infection, which can slow your recovery. Smoking also reduces your skin’s elasticity so it may not shrink well after liposuction.

Liposuction is usually carried out under general anaesthesia, which means you will be asleep during the procedure. If you’re having a general anaesthetic, you will be asked to follow fasting instructions. This means not eating or drinking, typically for about six hours beforehand. However, it’s important to follow your surgeon and anaesthetist’s advice.

You can have an epidural if you’re having only your lower body treated. If you’re having liposuction on a small area, it may be done under local anaesthesia. This completely blocks pain from the area that is being treated and you will stay awake during the procedure. You may also be given a sedative to help you relax during the procedure. See our frequently asked questions for more information about anaesthesia.

At the hospital, your nurse may check your heart rate and blood pressure, and test your urine.

Your surgeon should discuss with you what will happen before, during and after your procedure, and any pain you might have. This should have been done at your initial consultation, so now is your final opportunity to understand what will happen. Before your consultation you can help yourself by preparing questions to ask about the risks, benefits and any alternatives to the procedure. This will help you to be informed, so you can give your consent for the procedure to go ahead, which you may be asked to do by signing a consent form.

You and your surgeon will have previously discussed the areas that you want treated. Directly before your operation he or she will mark these areas on your body in pen. You may have photographs taken so that the results of the liposuction can be compared with your original appearance.

Liposuction is often done as a day case procedure, but the length of time you need to stay in hospital will vary depending on how much of your body is being treated and the anaesthetic you have. You may be asked to wear compression stockings to help prevent blood clots forming in the veins in your legs. You may need to have an injection of an anticlotting medicine called heparin as well as, or instead of, wearing compression stockings.

What happens during liposuction?

There are several different techniques and your surgeon will explain the options available to you. The operation usually takes between one and three hours depending on how much fat you’re having removed and the technique your surgeon is using.

Wet liposuction

This is also known as tumescent liposuction. Your surgeon will inject a mixture of salty water, local anaesthetic and other fluids into the fatty area being treated. This makes it easier to remove the fat and helps to reduce pain, bleeding and swelling after the operation.

Your surgeon will make a cut in your skin and insert a thin, metal tube called a cannula. This is attached to a vacuum pump or, if you’re only having a small amount of fat removed, a syringe that creates a vacuum. The tube is moved backwards and forwards inside the fatty tissue to break it up and suck it out. If you’re having large areas treated, your surgeon may need to make more than one cut in the area to reach all the fatty deposits.

Once your surgeon has removed the required amount of fat, the cannula is taken out and the cuts may be closed with stitches.

Dry liposuction

This is the same as wet liposuction but your surgeon won’t inject any fluid beforehand. This procedure tends to cause more bleeding and bruising than wet liposuction, so it’s not often used.

Ultrasound liposuction

If the fat is very dense, for example on a man’s upper body, or if there is a lot of fat, ultrasound (sound waves) can be used to break it up before it’s removed.

Power-assisted liposuction

This uses the same technique as wet liposuction but it uses a device that speeds up how fast the cannula moves. This means the fat can be taken out more quickly and also gives your surgeon better control.

What to expect afterwards

Afterwards, the treated area is firmly bandaged and you will usually be fitted with an elasticated support garment. You will need to wear this for several weeks to help reduce swelling and bruising and improve your body shape.

If you had a general anaesthetic, you will need to rest until the effects of the anaesthetic have passed. You will need to arrange for someone to drive you home. Try to have a friend or relative stay with you for the first 24 hours.

General anaesthesia temporarily affects your co-ordination and reasoning skills, so you must not drive, drink alcohol, operate machinery or sign legal documents for 24 hours afterwards. If you’re in any doubt about driving, contact your motor insurer so that you’re aware of their recommendations, and always follow your surgeon’s advice.

If you had a local anaesthetic, it may take several hours before the feeling comes back into the treated area. Take special care not to bump or knock the area. You will usually be able to go home when you feel ready.
You may need pain relief to help with any discomfort as the anaesthesia wears off.

Before you go home, your nurse will advise you about caring for your stitches, hygiene and bathing. You will usually be given a date for a follow-up appointment.

Recovering from liposuction

How long it takes to recover from liposuction will vary for everyone and also depends on the type of liposuction you had and the area treated. In general, you will probably be able to go back to doing your usual activities within two to four weeks, but it’s important to follow your surgeon’s advice.

If you need pain relief, you can take over-the-counter painkillers such as paracetamol or ibuprofen. How long you need to take these for will vary from person to person. Always read the patient information leaflet that comes with your medicine and if you have any questions, ask your pharmacist for advice.

You will usually need to wear your elasticated garments or bandages for about three weeks day and night after your operation. Some surgeons think that you will get a better result if you continue to wear them just during the day for a further three weeks after this. However, it will depend on how swollen and loose your skin is after the operation. See our frequently asked questions for more information.

Don’t do strenuous exercise for up to four weeks after your surgery, but it’s a good idea to try to walk about as much as possible and do gentle exercises. If you had treatment on a large area, it may take you longer to recover and you may need to take up to 10 days off work. See our frequently asked questions for more information.

If you had dissolvable stitches, the amount of time they will take to disappear depends on what type you had. However, for this procedure, they should disappear in about two weeks. If non-dissolvable stitches are used, these are usually removed about a week after liposuction.

It’s possible that you won’t be happy with your appearance after the operation. You must be aware that it may be several months before you see changes to your body shape as the swelling and skin shrinkage can take time to settle down. If you have skin with good elasticity, it’s more likely to shrink down quickly to fit your new body shape. See our frequently asked questions for more information.

What are the risks?

As with every procedure, there are some risks associated with liposuction. We have not included the chance of these happening as they are specific to you and differ for every person. Ask your surgeon to explain how these risks apply to you.

Side-effects

Side-effects of liposuction may include:

  • Considerable bruising. This can be painful and can sometimes take more than a month to clear.
  • Swelling. This may not completely settle for up to six months.
  • Scars. Typically these are about 1 to 2 cm long and will start off being red and raised but gradually fade.
  • Numbness. This may last for several months
  • Swollen ankles.
  • Raised, bumpy veins (thrombophlebitis) around the inside of your knee and inner part of your upper thigh if those areas were treated. This isn’t the same as deep vein thrombosis (DVT) and should settle after a few weeks.

Complications

Complications are when problems occur during or after the procedure.

The possible complications of any operation include an unexpected reaction to the anaesthetic, excessive bleeding or developing a blood clot, usually in a vein in the leg (DVT).

Other complications to liposuction may include:

  • infection
  • lumpy, uneven results, that may mean you need another operation
  • fat getting into the blood vessel and travelling to your lungs – this can cause a blockage, called a pulmonary embolism, which can be fatal
  • build-up of fluid in your lungs (pulmonary oedema) as a result of fluid injected into your body
  • damage to your internal organs – you may need further surgery to repair this


Reviewed by Polly Kerr, Bupa Health Information Team, October 2013

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  • This information was published by Bupa's Health Information Team and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence. It has been reviewed by appropriate medical or clinical professionals. Photos are only for illustrative purposes and do not reflect every presentation of a condition. The content is intended only for general information and does not replace the need for personal advice from a qualified health professional. For more details on how we produce our content and its sources, visit the about our health information page.

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