Freezing Fat

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Turning back the hands of time on those crow’s feet and frown lines sometimes means enduring a little pain.

“Yeah, it’s a couple needles, that’s not a big deal. And anything to get rid of this line would be fabulous, so I’m excited,” said flight attendant Debra Young.

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Young says everyone needs a little boost - which is why she’s come to Northwestern dermatologist, Dr. Murad Alam, for a little cosmetic enhancement.

“I think right now my least favorite part is my forehead and my neck,” said Young. “So, we’re gonna take care of that. My waist, I don’t actually have that many issues with it, but it needs a little, it needs a little attention.”

In addition to BOTOX, Young will also be trying newer procedures like skin tightening using ultrasound. And to tackle the unwanted fat in her mid-section, she will undergo a procedure known as Cryolipolysis, in which fat cells are killed by freezing them between two super-cooled plates.

The premise of the fat freezing procedure finds its roots in a dermatological condition sometimes referred to as Popsicle Panniculitis; whereby, a child who often sucks on the icy treat would develop a divot or a depression on the inside of the cheek, because the fat cells there were being frozen to death.

“And so, some smart people at Harvard began to think if this happens by mistake, maybe we could make this happen where we want it to,” said Dr. Alam. “If people have too much abdominal fat, maybe we can make that fat go away. And so, they invented this device, and it’s a very clever device that manages to freeze the fat, without injuring or damaging the skin on top.”

The plates get down to about 5 degrees centigrade and each treatment takes about an hour. Dr. Alam says it takes several treatments for there to be noticeable results.

The lingering question, however, seems to be: what happens to the dead fat cells?

“That’s a very good question. The FDA’s been wondering the same thing. You’ve melted this fat, you’ve frozen this fat, where does it go? What happened to it?” said Dr. Alam. “So, the FDA has actually asked all of the companies that are in this area to do a lot of blood tests on patients to make sure the fat isn’t going to the wrong place, and to make sure there isn’t too much fat in the blood.”

So far, Dr. Alam says that doesn’t appear to be the case. The assumption is that the body is able to deal with the destroyed fat cells.

The other caveat is it doesn’t work for everyone, which is why some patients still turn to longer standing, more proven procedures.

Jackie Griffin, a 32-year-old mother of two, decided that the best choice for dealing with the problem areas in her thighs was liposuction.

“I think it’s safe. I’ve researched it before, like a year ago,” said Griffin. “Thought about doing it, but you know, just never really did. I think it’s good, safe, good results.”

“Liposuction has been around for a long time but it’s still a fantastic procedure,” said Dr. Alam. “The benefits of liposuction: you can take out a lot of fat. One liter, two liter, over a kilo of fat at one time. And then that stays gone forever.”

Dr. Alam says it’s an excellent procedure for people who are in good health, don’t mind a little down time, and are looking to maximize the fat removal.

But, according to a new Northwestern study that Dr. Alam co-authored, consumers are often in the dark about which cosmetic procedures are in fact the safest and most effective -- mostly because of a lack of comparable research trials.

“There is not a lot of research money out there, and one company makes procedure A, one company makes procedure B, and they don’t have a lot of incentive to have a head-to-head study comparing the two,” Dr. Alam said. “And what do we want to compare them on? Safety, effectiveness, how long the effectiveness lasts, how uncomfortable they are, how much down time they have. It would be very useful to have more studies like that.”

And while most procedures that get FDA approval undergo some clinical trials, Dr. Alam contends that those are not large enough to determine how effective a procedure may be -- even if it is deemed safe.

Still, new research and applications like non-invasive skin tightening procedures are attractive to consumers looking to smooth and tighten the areas that gravity didn’t forget.

Debra Young finished out the day with another fairly new treatment that is the non-invasive version of a facelift. 

“You know, it’s quick, it’s done,” said Young. “And it’s like, I think I already feel tighter.”

As for her freezing fat experience, she says it wasn't too bad.

Whether or not you decide to go with the newer, less proven procedures or the tried and true, one thing is for certain: the Cryolipolysis procedure gives new meaning to the phrase: “freezing your butt off.”

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