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Procedure: Liposuction

Author: Jason Spector, MD FACS

Author: Jay Burns, MD FACS

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Liposuction is among the most commonly performed cosmetic surgeries.  In this procedure, fat is suctioned (aspirated) from beneath the skin through multiple small incisions using a cannula attached to a vacuum.  Liposuction is an ideal method of removing localized excess fat from virtually any area of the body and results in a trimmer, more youthful body contour.


Who is a Candidate for Liposuction?

The optimal candidate for liposuction is at or near his or her ideal body weight but despite exercise and weight loss has areas of excess fat (typically around the abdomen, buttocks and/or thighs).  Although liposuction may result in the removal of a large amount of fat, it is not a meant to provide lasting overall weight reduction and should instead be used to target specific areas with disproportionately large amounts of fat compared to the remainder of the body.


How is Liposuction Surgery performed?


Planning the Incisions

While you are in the standing position, your surgeon will mark the areas to undergo liposuction, as well as the sites of nearby access incisions.  When possible, incisions will be hidden in skin creases or other inconspicuous areas.



The type of anesthesia used will depend upon the extent of planned surgery. Liposuction is typically performed in the operating room although general anesthesia is not usually required. This is because the wetting solution, or fluid used to infiltrate the target areas, contains an anesthetic.  As a result, you will likely only need to be sedated for the procedure. Larger volume liposuction will more likely require general anesthesia with use of a breathing tube. 


Tumescent Technique

After you are asleep, your surgeon will inject the area to be treated with a wetting solution, a dilute mixture of lidocaine (anesthetic) and epinephrine (adrenaline).  This solution, often called tumescent solution, serves to reduce intraoperative/postoperative pain, decrease blood loss, and allows the surgeon to more easily pass the liposuction instruments (called “cannulas”) through the fatty tissue.  Finally, using cannulas of different diameters, the surgeon will aspirate the excess fat along with the tumescent fluid from multiple angles using specialized instruments inserted through different access incisions.


What can I expect during my recovery?

Unless 5 or more liters of fat are removed, overnight hospital stay is not required.  You will most likely experience a large amount of blood-tinged drainage from your incisions for the first 2-3 days.  This is normal and will decrease over time.  You will be sore for a few days, but most patients are able to return to light activity within a week.  Post-operatively, you may experience numbness in the areas undergoing liposuction, which may last several weeks.  Depending on the area of your body and the amount of fat removed, your surgeon might suggest wearing a compression garment to aid in your recovery.  You should expect to see moderate bruising and a significant amount of swelling after your procedure, which usually resolves in 1-2 weeks.  Although most of the swelling abates within a few weeks, your final result may not be seen for 3 months. 


What are the risks to Liposuction?

With any surgery, the major risks are infection and bleeding.  In rare circumstances, the cannulas may violate deeper body cavities and puncture vital organs. The most common complication associated with liposuction, however, is a dissatisfactory cosmetic outcome: removing too little fat can result in failure to reach cosmetic goals, while removing too much can leave a patient with unsightly bumps, divots, or sagging skin.  Lastly, lidocaine overdose is a rare but potentially fatal complication of liposuction that can be avoided by means of conscientious administration.


What is “Laser Liposuction?”

Laser liposuction is a relatively new technique in which a laser is attached to the tip of the liposuction cannula and used to lyse (or disrupt) fat cells prior to aspirating them.  Both smaller and larger areas of fat can be addressed by using lasers of different strengths.  Purported benefits of using this technique include a decrease in intraoperative blood loss, less postoperative pain, a shorter recovery time, and improved cosmetic outcome.  Despite a great deal of initial excitement about this innovative procedure, both its safety and efficacy have not been well studied.


Laser liposuction is often mistaken for “laser lipolysis” where a laser is applied to the outer surface of the skin to lyse fat cells below, with or without subsequent standard (vacuum-assisted) liposuction.    While some reports show that laser lipolysis results in contour improvements and tightening of the skin with minimal untoward side effects such as bruising or swelling, other reports have demonstrated less than consistent results.  The major risk of this technique is thermal burn injury of the overlying skin.  As with laser liposuction, laser lipolysis remains an experimental technology and has not been sufficiently tested in humans to warrant routine use.



Liposuction is a useful procedure to remove disproportionately large areas of subcutaneous fat (fat under the skin).  It is typically less invasive than excisional body contouring procedures (such as abdominoplasty, or “tummy-tuck”) and can be performed in virtually any area of the body.  Although liposuction is a relatively straightforward procedure, it is essential to select a surgeon who both understands your cosmetic goals and has the experience necessary to avoid common pitfalls including postoperative contour irregularities.



  1. Thorne, Charles, et al. Grabb and Smith’s Plastic Surgery, 6th edition.  Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2007.

  2. McCarthy, Joseph, et al. Current Therapy in Plastic Surgery. Philadelphia: Saunders Elsevier, 2006.

  3. Zelickson BD, Dressel, RD. “Discussion of Laser-Assisted Liposuction.” Lasers in Surgery and Medicine 2009;41:709-713.




The roots of liposuction date back approximately 30 years to France and were introduced by Dr. Yves-Gerard Illouz. What was initially met with great skepticism by the medical community has progressed over the past 30 years to be the most popular invasive plastic surgery procedure performed over the last 5 years.



Liposuction was originally designed for a patient who has a stable weight, who exercises regularly, and watches their diet, but has small to moderate pockets of fat that persist. The most popular areas to be treated are the abdomen and love handle areas, the outer/inner thigh, inner knee, back, upper arms, and the area under the chin.


Indications for liposuction have been expanded over the years as the techniques have been refined. Clearly, many patients now have greater volumes of fat liposuctioned. However, when volumes greater than 5 liters are removed, the complication rate begins to rise.  Even though indications have expanded, there are limitations to what liposuction can achieve. Liposuction is not performed to achieve weight loss and is not an indication for the obese patient. 


Who is Not a Candidate?

Obese patients are not candidates for liposuction. Some physicians use BMI (body mass index) as an objective criteria while others utilize more subjective criteria such as a simple physical exam.


In my experience the patient who has a widely fluctuating weight problem is not a candidate for liposuction, as weight gain after liposuction can cause body shape changes that are often unsightly.


Also, patients with medical problems that make them not good candidates for surgery in general, are not good candidates for liposuction. Such conditions include but are not exclusive to cardiac disease, emphysema (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), and a history of blood clots or pulmonary embolus.


Description of Procedure

If the patient is determined to be a good candidate, then surgery is scheduled, and the areas to be liposuctioned are marked precisely by the surgeon. These areas are marked much as one would mark a contour map to determine the high and low points on the body.  The marked areas are instilled with varying amounts and types of fluid depending on the surgeon’s preference.  Most surgeons use a wet or a super-wet technique currently.

A cannula (suctioning instrument) is used to remove the fat in a uniform fashion until the endpoint is reached. This is determined by pinching the skin and feeling how much fat is left behind. This is compared to the opposite side to check for symmetry. In most instances a pressure dressing in the form of a girdle or binder is applied after the procedure so as to minimize swelling. 


A general guideline of wearing the girdle for one week per decade of life lived is a good general rule.  For example, a 40-year-old patient would wear the girdle for 4 weeks, and a 60 year old might wear the girdle for 6 weeks.


How Long Will the Results Last?

If the patient’s weight is maintained, the contour improvement will be maintained for the reminder of one’s life.  The only thing that negatively affects the result with regard to contour would be recurrent weight gain.


The Recovery

As the swelling diminishes over the next several weeks after surgery, pressure on the skin from the binding garment causes the skin to reattach to the muscle underneath.  If no girdle pressure is applied to the wound, maximum swelling and stretching of the skin is seen after surgery. If this occurs, the skin can droop as the swelling abates.  Even in optimal conditions, the skin can be a little more lax after liposuction.


There are some general truths about recovery that are consistent.  Bruising typically persists for approximately 2-3 weeks post operatively. Most patients report soreness that feels as if they had worked out for the first time in several months. Therefore, when the patient is stationary they do not report undue amounts of pain in most cases. It is only upon movement that the soreness is felt. Again, this discomfort is the most intense in the first three days and lessens over the following week. After ten days to two weeks, a steady recovery is seen of gaining strength and decreasing discomfort.  Numbness may remain for several weeks to several months.  As the swelling diminishes, lumps and bumps can be seen and are usually minor. One must wait a full 6 months to determine the final result after liposuction. 


Side Effects and Risks

Side effects and risk would include an unsatisfactory cosmetic result in which longstanding contour irregularities are seen.  Minor lumps and bumps may be seen after liposuction, and this must be expected to some degree.  For example, the fat that is left behind has been bruised in a 2-4 hour procedure, and therefore bruising of this fat may lead to long term reduction in volume in that area, and hence a small depression.  Also, when fat has been injured there can be inflammation and calcification within the fat, which can leave a long term elevation in skin contour.  These are usually minor, and the overall result is not significantly impacted by these irregularities. Abdominal perforations have been reported in rare instances.  These complications are more common with patients who have a larger body mass index and have more fat to be removed. 


Other complications usually occur with larger volume liposuction and involve stresses on the cardio/pulmonary system. In addition, blood clots can arise in the lower legs and migrate to the lungs causing what is called a pulmonary embolus. In extremely rare cases, death can occur. These severe complications are fortunately very rare and are usually seen after very large volume liposuction.  Large volume liposuction should be done as a stand-alone procedure and not in combination with other surgeries.


Alternatives to Liposuction

Alternatives to liposuction include diet and weight loss and are always the first choice for fat reduction. Other treatment choices include non-invasive fat removal treatments.


Comments on Special Techniques

Laser assisted liposuction

Laser assisted liposuction has become increasingly popular in the last 2-3 years. Though claims have been made that with laser assisted liposuction there is greater tightening of the skin, less bleeding, faster recovery time, and less pain, no prospective study comparing standard techniques to laser assisted liposuction has been performed.