Can You Really Freeze Off the Fat?

Is Cryolipolysis the Miracle Fat Cell Killer?

Did you know there’s a medical procedure that claims to destroy fat cells?  No, I’m not talking about liposuction.  In fact, a procedure called lipolysis attempts to dissolve fat cells using non-surgical means such as laser, ultrasound, or RF current.  A few manufacturers, including Zeltiq Aesthetics, have actually developed devices to perform these types of procedures.  Zeltiq’s device is called cryolipolysis.  

Here’s how it works.   One of these cooling devices is set against the skin in an area where you want to get rid of fat.  It is able to cool the skin, pushing the temperatures of the fat cells to below zero degrees Celsius.  At such low temperatures, the subcutaneous fat cells die off, are broken down in the liver, and are eliminated by the body through urine over several months.    

Studies on the use of cryolipolysis are very limited, as it’s a relatively new procedure.  One study however conducted by Dr. Mathew Avram at the General Hospital of Dermatology Laser and Cosmetic Center in Boston suggests that the procedure may prove to be an effective and non-invasive way to remove fat.  His study found a 22 percent reduction in the fat layer 2 to 3 months after the actual treatment for the 18 participants of his study.

The results sound promising, but there are drawbacks and potential red flags.  First, the cryolipolysis device received approval from the FDA, but not as a fat remover. It has been approved as a fat-reducing application in Canada and the European Union, but not here.  In the U.S., cryolipolysis was approved only for the purpose of anesthetizing and cooling the skin.  Some doctors would argue this isn’t a big concern since many pills and devices are often used off-label.  Off-label refers to a doctor using their best judgment when it comes to using a device or drug as a treatment for something other than what its intended use is on the label.  This practice is legal provided it doesn’t violate any regulations.  

Secondly, the procedure is not for everyone.  It is recommended for patients that are already fit and in good health, which to me is somewhat ironic, considering these people probably don’t need the procedure to start!  Furthermore, it can’t treat large fat areas, and works best for smaller problem areas like love handles.  Cost may also be an issue for many people as one treatment can range from $1,500 to $3,000.

Did I mention the side effects?  A mild-burning sensation and some numbness are expected.  While most people haven’t reported any major problems, there have been a few cases of patients who have described pain after the treatment that was severe and persisted for several weeks.  Unfortunately, if you try to treat the pain with narcotics, anti-inflammatories, or steroids, you could potentially limit the procedure’s benefits.

Finally, studies that exposed cells to cold temperatures showed cell damage and a possible link to cancer later in life.  As cryolipolysis is a relatively new procedure, it’s too early to tell whether exposing fat cells to such cold temperatures will actually lead to more serious health problems further down the road.  The research just isn’t there yet to tell us.

Cryolipolysis may seem like a dream come true for some people looking for an easy way to deal with problem fat areas, but you really need to ask yourself if the benefits will outweigh the potential health concerns.  My guess is for most people it will not.