What is a Fat Transfer?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Fat transfer, or autologous fat transplantation and micro-lipoinjection, is a cosmetic surgery technique that makes use of a patient’s own fat cells, and transfers them from one spot on the body to another. Most often, the procedure is used to fill out the face, hands or neck, and to give the look and appearance of firmness when aging causes skin to look hollowed or deeply contoured inward. It can also be used to make lips appear thicker or to plump up buttocks or breasts, though the latter is not recommended.

Fat cells are sucked from one area of the body and injected elsewhere in a fat transfer.
Fat cells are sucked from one area of the body and injected elsewhere in a fat transfer.

The earliest transfers of fat took place in the late 19th century and little resembles today’s methods. The physician, Franz Neuber removed a portion of fat from a patient’s arm, and placed it underneath the skin of the patient’s cheek. The surgery was an attempt to build up a hollowing in the cheek that had been caused by an infected cheekbone. Through much of the 20th century, fat transfer became more refined, and ultimately was mainly used cosmetically to produce a more youthful look.

In the 1970s, however, collagen became the rage for plumping up the face and hands. Although the results didn’t last, people used and continue to use collagen injections. As liposuction become increasingly popular, and methods for it became easier to employ, doctors looked again at fat transfer as a means of slowing down the look of aging. By 1985, fat transfer was considered a viable means of making the skin appear tighter, via fat injections.

Today, fat transfer is normally an outpatient or same day procedure, though from time to time, people have other cosmetic procedures done that might require an overnight or longer hospital stay. Doctors remove, through liposuction, fat cells from the thighs, stomach or buttocks from the patient. They filter the cells and inject them back into the patient’s face, hands, and lips, beneath the chin or elsewhere. Fat transfer tends to work best on areas that don’t move significantly. It’s particularly good for filling out hollowing and wrinkles in the cheeks and eyes. The look that results from the procedure, especially in the cheeks, can last for several years.

Sometimes fat transfer is used to enhance buttocks or breasts. Some surgeons hesitate to use fat transfer for breast augmentation. Increasing fat cells in the breasts can make detecting breast cancer more difficult.

When fat is transferred, it usually needs to find blood flow so that the cells will survive. About 30% of transferred cells survive, while the rest die off. After having the procedure done, patients often look and feel like the area of transfer is very puffy or swollen; it may also be bruised. Swelling lasts for a week to two weeks at most as fat cells that don’t get blood flow die. People undergoing the procedure may need several sessions to get the desired look, since a single micro-lipoinjection may only last for about six months.

Risks of the procedure when performed by a competent surgeon are low. About 1-2% of patients may have infection at the site of withdrawal or injection. In rare cases, fat can be accidentally injected into a vein or artery, and cause a blood clot to form. This can lead, though again extremely rarely, to stroke. More risk is involved when patients are under general anesthesia when the procedure is performed, or when multiple procedures are performed in one day.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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