Laser liposuction: the Emperor’s New Clothes?

Just this week, the American Society for Aesthetic Plasic Surgery (ASAPS) put on an educational webinar for Plastic Surgeons, talking about various recent advances in liposuction. A variety of devices, including Power-assisted Liposuction, VASER, and SmartLipo and the related laser-assisted liposuction devices were reviewed and discussed by the experts.

All of these were compared against the traditional “gold standard” liposuction method of tumescent liposuction, which has been proven to be safe and effective in many published studies. (This is where a thin tube, called a cannula, is hooked to a vacuum, and is used to suction out fat that has been previously injected with a good volume of medication-containing fluid.)

Here are the results:

Power-assisted Liposuction (PAL) got the “thumbs-up” from the panel, as good scientific trials showed that it was as effective as tumescent liposuction, and less fatiguing for the surgeon.

VASER, the latest form of ultrasonic liposuction, was also well received. The panelists liked it for secondary liposuction (i.e. touch-ups) and areas of the body that are fibrous. Some surgeons used it as their primary liposuction tool. Good scientific data was presented to show that this is effective, and safe, as long as the ultrasonic energy applied is not excessive.

Laser-assisted liposuction, such as SmartLipo or CoolLipo, received a veritable beating during the discussions by the experts. Marketing claims by the manufacturers, such as “less invasive”, “safer”, “more skin tightening”, “quicker recovery” and “better results” were each individually addressed and debunked, until not a single one of these claims was left standing. (Cue sound effects: Wham! Biff! Pow!!) Higher laser power machines actually increased the percentages of patients with complications from skin burns.

Essentially, we learned that there was no good scientific proof for any of the laser lipo claims. While these laser lipo machines do remove fat, here’s the key point – they haven’t been shown to do it any better than the other liposuction devices we already have. And there’s been little to no convincing evidence of significant skin tightening in any reputable journal in a double-blinded comparison.

The more honest surgeons in the panel agreed: you can get the same results with any of the current technologies, without spending big bucks for the laser system.

In other words – It’s not the hammer, it’s the carpenter using it.

A skilled, experienced surgeon will get good liposuction results by using good patient selection and appropriate technique. Other than the questionable marketing to technology-obsessed patients who demand the “latest”, there appears to be no additional merit to the laser liposuction methods.

I realize that it may seem hard to believe for those that like to think that the latest laser gadget must be the best. It’s a bit of the old story of the “Emperor’s New Clothes”. Laser liposuction, no matter what smart name you call it, has not been proven to be better than standard liposuction in any controlled scientific trials after several years on the market….and if it were really as marvellous as everyone claimed, we would have had plenty of scientific proof by now.

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