Liposuction is a cosmetic procedure used to remove unwanted body fat.
It involves sucking out small areas of fat that are hard to lose through exercise and a healthy diet. It's carried out on areas of the body where deposits of fat tend to collect, such as the buttocks, hips, thighs and tummy.
The aim is to alter body shape, and the results are generally long-lasting, providing you maintain a healthy weight.
It works best in people who are a normal weight and in areas where the skin is tight.
Liposuction carried out for cosmetic reasons is not normally available on the NHS. However, liposuction can sometimes be used by the NHS to treat certain health conditions, such as:
- lymphoedema – a long-term condition that causes swelling in the arms and legs
- lipoedema – a condition where there is an abnormal build-up of fat in the legs, buttocks and thighs
If you're thinking of having liposuction for cosmetic reasons, think very carefully before you go ahead. It can be expensive, the results cannot be guaranteed, and there are risks to consider. It's a good idea to tell your GP first. Be sure that cosmetic surgery is right for you.
How much does it cost?
In the UK, liposuction ranges in price from about £2,000 to £6,000, depending on where you go and the body areas being treated.
Where do I go?
If you're looking in England, check the Care Quality Commission (CQC) website for treatment centres that can perform liposuction.
All independent clinics and hospitals that provide cosmetic surgery in England must be registered with the CQC. The CQC publishes inspection reports and performance ratings to help people choose care.
You should also research the surgeon who is going to carry out the operation. All doctors must, as a minimum, be registered with the General Medical Council (GMC). Check the register to see the doctor's fitness to practise history. You may also want to find out:
- how many liposuctions they've performed where there have been complications
- what sort of follow-up you should expect if things go wrong
- their own patient satisfaction rates
Read more about choosing who will do your cosmetic procedure.
What does it involve?
Liposuction is usually carried out under general anaesthetic, although an epidural anaesthetic may be used for liposuction on lower parts of the body.
The surgeon would mark on your body the area where fat is to be removed. They would then:
- inject this area with a solution containing anaesthetic and medicine, to reduce blood loss, bruising and swelling
- break up the fat cells using high-frequency vibrations, a weak laser pulse or a high-pressure water jet
- make a small incision (cut) and insert a suction tube attached to a vacuum machine (several cuts may need to be made if the area is large)
- move the suction tube back and forth to loosen the fat and suck it out
- drain any excess fluid and blood
- stitch up and bandage the treated area
This usually takes 1 to 3 hours. Most people need to stay in hospital overnight.
After the procedure, you'd be fitted with an elasticated support corset or compression bandages. This helps to reduce swelling and bruising, and should be worn constantly for several weeks after the operation.
You may need to take antibiotics straight after the procedure to reduce the risk of infection. Most people also take mild painkillers to ease any pain and swelling.
If you had a general anaesthetic, someone would need to drive you home and stay with you for the first 24 hours.
How long it will be before you are able to return to work will depend on a number of factors, such as the type of job that you do and how much of your body was treated.
The same will apply to how long it will be before you are able to drive. You should discuss this with your surgeon.
The bandage or corset can be taken off while you shower.
You will need to avoid strenuous activity for up to 4 to 6 weeks (but walking and general movement should be fine).
The results of the procedure are not always noticeable until the swelling has gone down. It can take up to 6 months for the area to settle completely.
After about a week: Stitches would be removed (unless you had dissolvable stitches).
At 4 to 6 weeks: You should be able to resume any contact sports or strenuous activities you'd normally do.
Side effects to expect
It's common after liposuction to have:
- bruising and swelling, which may last up to 6 months
- numbness, which should go away in 6 to 8 weeks
- inflammation of the treated area, or the veins underneath
- fluid coming from the cuts
- swollen ankles (if the legs or ankles are treated)
What could go wrong
Liposuction can occasionally result in:
- lumpy and uneven results
- bleeding under the skin (haematoma)
- persistent numbness that can last for months
- changes in skin colour in the treated area
- a build-up of fluid in the lungs (pulmonary oedema) from the fluid injected into the body
- a blood clot in the lungs (pulmonary embolism)
- damage to internal organs during the procedure
Any type of operation also carries a small risk of:
- excessive bleeding
- developing a blood clot in a vein
- an allergic reaction to the anaesthetic
The surgeon should explain how likely these risks and complications are, and how they would be treated if they occurred.
Occasionally, people find the desired effect was not achieved and feel they need another operation.
What to do if you have problems
Cosmetic surgery can sometimes go wrong and the results may not be what you expected.
You should contact the clinic where the operation was carried out as soon as possible if you have severe pain or any unexpected symptoms.
If you have liposuction and are not happy with the results, or you think the procedure was not carried out properly, you should take up the matter with your surgeon through the hospital or clinic where you were treated.
If you have concerns about your care, you should contact the CQC.
If necessary, you can raise a concern about a doctor to the GMC.
The Royal College of Surgeons has more information and advice about what to do if things go wrong with cosmetic surgery
Who should not have it
Liposuction is not a treatment for obesity, and it will not remove cellulite or stretch marks.
It's only really suitable for people who have tried changing their lifestyle and found this has not helped.