Fat freezing: The solution in the battle against the bulge?

For years, experts within the weight loss industry have been looking for a fat reduction method that would appease those who don’t feel that exercise and diets are helping and are against invasive surgical methods, like liposuction. A few years ago, they came up with what they think is the answer to losing those stubborn fatty cells and it’s called Cryolipolysis or commonly referred to as fat freezing, finds Angelique Ruzicka.

So how does it work? Your fatty area is sucked up by a vacuum-like contraption and exposed to extremely cold temperatures. Apparently, fat cells are more sensitive to the cold so they crystalise and self-destruct if exposed to icy temperatures. They are then absorbed and flushed out of the body, through the liver. Fat freezes at a different temperature to the skin above, which is why advocates of this treatment claim that the skin won’t be frozen. However, the skin is also protected by a gel sheet during treatment.

But you can’t just put an ice-pack on the area that you want to tone down and hope for the best – Cryolipolysis is a medical procedure and you have to be hooked up to this machine that sucks up your stubborn fatty area and cools it at four degrees for 60 minutes by a specialist who knows what he/she is doing. So don’t try this at home!

Physicians Dieter Manstein and R. Rox Anderson at The Wellman Centre at Massachusetts General Hospital in the United States came up with the concept and researched this method by experimenting on pigs. They reported on their data in 2008. The treatment has been available and used in South Africa since around 2011.

“The key to the machine only affecting fat cells is the temperature at which it treats. The concept came about when Rox Anderson read an article about children who ate ice lollies and lost fat in their cheeks. At a very specific temperature the fat cells crystallise but the skin cells and blood supply is unaffected – just as in the example of children eating ice lollies,” explains Dr Natalie Cordeiro from Laserderm.

How safe is it?

Advocates and Cryolipolysis specialists claim the treatment is virtually risk free, except for a bit of bruising and tenderness. But if you dig into the terms and conditions of treatment consent forms and speak to the experts they confirm that there can be some pain involved but that this differs from person to person.

The Cosmetic Dermatology Centre’s consent form lays out what you can expect. The suction pressure may cause sensations of deep pulling, tugging and pinching. You may feel intense stinging, tingling, aching or cramping as treatment begins but as the treatment progresses the area numbs and you might feel slightly sensitive.

The form adds that you may feel a dulling of sensation in the treated area that can last for several weeks after your procedure. Other changes, including deep itching, tingling, numbness, tenderness to the touch, pain in the treated area, strong cramping, muscle spasms, aching or soreness have also been reported.

Worryingly it says that “in rare cases patients have experienced vasovagal symptoms (fainting) during the treatment and reported freeze burn, dark skin colour, hardness, discrete nodules or enlargement of the treatment area. Surgical intervention may be required to correct the enlargement”. However, when I asked a clinician at CDC about their record she denied that any of her patients had suffered burns or frostbite, as Zeltiq uses advanced cooling technology.

“Typical side effects are tenderness to touch and intermittent shooting pains for a few days after the procedure. I have had a very small percentage (2-3%) of patients who needed anti-inflammatories because of pain. This typically lasts 2-3 days and the pain responds well to medication. The vast majority of my patients describe the ‘recovery’ as an awareness that a procedure has been done but can continue daily activities and even gym without the need for analgesia,” says Dr Cordeiro.

Are all machines the same?

Experts warn that it’s important to do your research and pick a treatment centre that has the right equipment. Medical technology company Zeltiq Coolsculpting, for example, says its machines have been approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) because it has a safety mechanism called ‘freeze detect’ built into the machine.

“This allows the temperature to be continuously monitored and if it reaches a dangerously low temperature the machine will automatically stop the procedure before any risk to the surrounding skin. Many other machines that freeze fat do not have this safety mechanism so it is vital to ensure that you go to a reputable medical centre for treatment and make sure the machine has been proven safe,” says Dr Cordeiro.

There have been some horror stories relayed about botched treatments. Back in 2014, The Daily Mail in the United Kingdom highlighted one incident where one customer, Sarah Hall, suffered severe burns, akin to frostbite, after undergoing Cryolipolysis. It’s not clear from the article which machine was used. It was only after the botched treatment that Hall discovered the practitioner was only trained in hairdressing. Doctors, said the Mail, were concerned about the number of cowboy cosmetic practitioners that had sprung up around the country. There was also concern around the lack of regulation in the UK cosmetic industry.

Costs of treatment

Here in South Africa, the treatment isn’t cheap and can range between R5, 000 – R7, 000 per treatment, depending on where you go. But it’s not as expensive as liposuction. Back in 2013, website Health24 reported that lipo conducted in a doctor’s consultation room can set you back between R12, 000 to R18, 000, while a theatre procedure could cost around R75, 000. Costs would certainly have increased since then.

The CDC says treatments start from R6,550 per area, but they do run specials from time to time. Currently you pay for three treatments and get the fourth free. At times, you can get treatments at a heavy discount from group buying websites like Groupon and Wikideals.

There are many reasons why fat freezing is so costly. Treatments are expensive because the initial outlay of the machines can cost hundreds of thousands of Rands. Some of the machines cost R500, 000 and up and they have a lifespan. Clinics also need to have this machine serviced regularly – every four to six months. The consumables that come with the treatments are also expensive and then the cost of the specialist’s time needs to be accounted for too. Often clients will have more than one treatment, which together can take around 120 minutes to treat.

The message from some experts is that you should not always be drawn in by specials. It’s advisable that you do your homework and double check the person offering the treatment’s credentials and experience as there are some practices that buy cheap knock off machines and products from companies that don’t provide adequate servicing and training. What’s more, the cosmetic industry is not regulated so this is again something to consider. Speak to your doctor first before considering the treatment and ideally get a referral.

So do you see results?

If the before and after pictures I was shown by the CDC are anything to go by, the short answer is “yes”. The downside is that you don’t see the effects immediately as the dead fat cells take a while to flush out of your system and the timeline can vary. Some say they can see results as early as six weeks but those offering the treatments usually take ‘after pics’ around week 12.

Also the treatment is not for everyone. If you’re obese, pregnant, have liver problems or if your skin is overly sensitive to the cold you should be turned away. “It’s ideally aimed at the person who is within 3 -5 kilograms off their ideal body weight. However, because we offer a broad range of treatments at Laserderm I have often combined a medical weight loss programme and medical treatment of conditions such as type 2 diabetes with Zeltiq and achieved outstanding results,” says Dr Cordeiro.

While this procedure does sound scary the best thing about this has got to be the fact that there’s no needles, no special diet or supplements. There’s no surgery or recovery period. You can just go on as normal and with competition increasing it looks set to be a treatment that is not exclusively within the reach of Hollywood stars. As with anything weight loss related there are risks involved. It’s up to us as consumers to weigh these risks up and to do research into how it works and ask about the practitioner’s qualifications and experience. Saving money, when it comes to precious things like our bodies, should not be the ultimate goal – safety should!

Further reading: 

*Moneybags’ editor pro first-hand account of the treatment.
How men can fight the battle of the bulge

Contact information:

Cosmetic Dermatology Centre (CDC)
Website: www.capederm.co.za
Tel: +27 21 5527220
Email: info@capederm.co.za

For those not based in Cape Town contact Laserderm for the nearest clinic that specialises in Cryolipolysis.