Can You Freeze Off Your Fat?

For those who spend hours in the gym to burn off fat, the idea may sound counterintuitive. But researchers are investigating the possibility that that applying precise, cold temperatures to those troublesome bulges could actually result in modest fat loss.

In an article published last December in the journal Lasers in Surgery and Medicine, Dr. Mathew Avram, director of the Massachusetts General Hospital Dermatology Laser and Cosmetic Center in Boston, conducted a review to help determine whether a device used to cool the skin during dermatological treatments could also effectively reduce fat deposits under the skin.

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The idea that applying a precise cold temperature to these fat deposits is an approach that has been explored over the past five years. And according to Avram's review, it holds promise.

The technique "takes advantage of the differential in fat's susceptibility to the cold," Avram said. "Fat freezes at a higher temperature than the rest of the skin does. Thus, at a certain temperature you can freeze the fat, but not harm the skin."

Avram was quick to point out, however, that the results are "not comparable to liposuction, and this is not a weight-loss device." And he said that even though the device used in the technique is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, this particular use has not yet earned the FDA's okay -- and thus is not ready for public consumption.

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But in terms of safety, Avram said, "At this point, these studies seem to be reassuring."

Santa Monica-based cosmetic surgeon Dr. Mark Berman, president of the American Academy of Cosmetic Surgery, agreed that the technique appears to hold promise for fat reduction.

"The good news is that there does not seem to be any problem caused when the body is reabsorbing the [fat]; there are no demonstrable changes in liver function," he said. "I can see this becoming another dermatologic weapon. This is going to be a nice little device."

However, cosmetic surgery experts also said that if widely adopted, the technique will join other minimally invasive fat busting techniques in a growing and competitive field.

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"It is likely to create significant interest, as have all these 'alternatives to liposuction,'" said Dr. Michael McGuire, president of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons and associate clinical professor of plastic surgery at UCLA. "But the reality is that they are very limited in their effect."

"It's a novel procedure; studies have demonstrated its efficacy and safety," said Dr. Jessie Cheung, associate director of cosmetic dermatology at the New York University Langone Medical Center. "The question is, are patients willing to pay for the technology and the likely need for multiple treatments to achieve their desired contour?"

Even Berman said that if the technique catches on, the relatively modest results may be oversold by some overzealous practitioners.

"The thing that I worry about is that some guy gets a hold of one of these machines and says to the public, 'here's a minimally invasive way to get rid of all of your fat.' People get the idea that they can freeze their tuchis off," he said.

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