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If you are thinking about getting one or more procedures for skin tightening, you will want to know about the risk, side effects, and how happy you will be with the results. The problems that occur with all skin tightening procedures generally fall into one of three categories:

  • Risk of medical or surgical complications that are a risk to your health or the integrity of your tissues
  • Risk that the procedure performed is not the procedure that you really want or need—either too much, too little or the wrong procedure to address your problem
  • Risk that the results will be either unnatural looking or obviously operated upon

My lawyer is again reminding me to remind you that you should not rely upon the following discussion of risks as a basis to decide whether or not to have a procedure. If I am not your doctor, I am not your doctor. Rely upon what your doctor tells you.

Risk of complications that are a risk to your health or the integrity of your tissues

All of the surgical procedures have similar sets of risks, although the likelihood that they will occur vary among the procedures, with the skill of the surgeon, and the patient’s individual medical condition. Differentiation has to be made between events that are expected and occur in most, if not all patients, such as swelling and bruising, and complications that only occur in some and can cause permanent damage. Skin tightening surgical procedure risks include excessive bleeding, infection, nerve damage, tissue death, scarring, swelling, and the risks of general anesthesia, if needed. Bleeding after surgery can be a problem when the blood collection prevents healing or puts pressure on other structures. Infection can cause damage to the tissue. Nerve damage can cause loss of sensation or muscle movement. Death of tissue at the edges of the area that has been lifted in a facelift can cause significant scarring. Scarring can be unsightly or actually affect function, as when eyelids don’t close properly because of scarring and chronic drying then damages the surface of the eyeball. Additionally eyelid lifts have a risk of loss of vision (luckily extremely rare), changes in vision, double vision, excess or inadequate tearing.

Fortunately, serious, lasting complications from surgical skin tightening procedures are uncommon. But as with all the risks that your physician discusses with you, they do sometimes occur. Otherwise they wouldn’t be talking to you about them. Each of the surgical procedures has its own relative risk of each complication that is specific to that procedure, based on the extent of surgery performed and the characteristics of the tissue that is located on the surgical field. For example, facelift surgery has the greatest risk of “flap necrosis” or death of skin at the edges of the “flap” that is moved because the area of tissue that must be separated from the underlying blood supply is the greatest. Eyelid surgery affects structures surrounding the eyeball, so the risk of damage to the eye, though very low, is specific to that particular surgical procedure.

The non-surgical procedures risks in general are less severe, reflecting the less invasive nature of the procedures. But, they do occur. Radiofrequency tissue tightening with Thermage risks include very rare risk of burns, surface irregularities or fat atrophy which are reported with current technology and current treatment protocols as less than 2 cases per 10,000 patients treated. Liquid lift with skin filling injections may cause bruising or swelling lasting for up to a few weeks. Bumps under the skin may occur and are occasionally visible. Rarely compression of a blood vessel may occur, which if not successfully treated, can cause damage to the tissue from lack of blood flow. Very rarely, a long lasting infection can occur.

Risk that the procedure performed is not the procedure that you really want or need—either too much, too little or the wrong procedure to address your problem

It is not unusual for a patient to request one procedure when another is indicated. A patient may request an eyelid lift, when the real need is for a brow lift, since a sagging brow doesn’t hold the eyelid up well, so it sags. Another may request Thermage treatment, when their real need is for a face lift. Plastic surgeons and cosmetic dermatologists are trained to evaluate the real nature of the problem and to suggest the proper procedure to address it. Problems occur when the physician does not accurately evaluate the problem, and/or performs the wrong procedure. That is why formal training, experience, judgment, an artistic eye, and our old friend the Hippocratic oath are important.

Risk that the results will be either unnatural looking or obviously operated upon

Many patients worry more about having a bad cosmetic result than they do about the risk of serious complications from skin tightening. We have all seen results that are unfortunate. Sometimes they are very obviously bad, and sometimes it just doesn’t look right. Too tight, too unnatural, too “done”.

Bad results after surgical procedures include the dreaded “wind tunnel” pulled too tight/too much look. Often this is the result of a surgical face lift, brow lift or eyelid lift that has either removed too much skin or fat, or has pulled skin tight over a face that has very little fat to provide normal contour. Too tight face lifts often leave a “skeletonized” appearance to the face. Too tight brow lifts can raise the eyebrows unnaturally. Eyelid lifts that remove too much fat give a hollowing around the eyes. Facelifts and brow lifts may cause changes in the hairline shape or localized hair loss. Scars may be visible, thick or distort the shape of the surrounding structures. Shape of the structures may change. This is often noticed as a change in the attachment of the ear to the side of the neck, so called “pixie ear”, after a facelift, or rounding of the normal almond shape of the eye after an eyelid lift. Skin may be pulled in an unnatural direction, such as the “sweep” of the cheek looseness that may change from the pre-surgical downward jowls to a horizontal pouch. Asymmetry may occur, either as accentuation of pre-existing asymmetry or as a new problem, with one side tighter, higher, flatter or more prominent than the other side.

Poor cosmetic results, as abnormal or too tight appearance after non-surgical radiofrequency treatments have not been reported. Surface irregularity, though very rare, is aesthetically unpleasing. Lack of sufficient improvement in skin tightening may give inadequate cosmetic improvement. Filler treatment may be either too much or too little. Inadequate filler volume gives inadequate results. Excessive filler volume gives an unnatural, bloated appearance. Shape of structures may be changed, most commonly seen in the “trout pout” of some patients after lip injections. Lumps, bumps, puffiness or visibility of the filler through the skin may occur.

Oh my, such unpleasantness. Fortunately, a good cosmetic outcome without complications is common when the physician is trained and skilled, and the patient does their part. So we better discuss that next.

Next: Top 10 aesthetic skin tightening procedure tips

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