One of the rewarding and challenging things about medicine is that things are always changing—and for the better. Anyone who has been a surgeon for more than 10 or 15 years is now doing something which was learned after we completed training. Sometimes we are doing an entirely different operation, and sometimes we are improving an operation we have been doing for many years. This certainly applies to the tummy tuck from my perspective as a plastic surgeon in Knoxville, TN.
Tummy Tucks Over Time
Tummy tucks, or abdominoplasties, have always been one of my favorite and most consistent operations. The operation is designed to work on the skin of the abdominal wall, the fat layer beneath the skin, and the abdominal muscles (mostly in women who have had pregnancies). Over the years, I have made several changes to how I perform this operation. Although I have always liked my tummy tuck results, I am even happier with them now as a result of these changes. Let’s look at the changes in my tummy tucks over time.
1. Hiding Scars
The appearance of the scar from a tummy tuck is a concern for all women and men who are considering a tummy tuck. And there are two components to the scar: its appearance and its placement.
Scar appearance is not something that we can control. Things like skin type, sun exposure, and a patient’s genetic predisposition to scarring are the things we can’t change. But we have found that the use of silicone strips that compress the scars during the healing process can be very beneficial. We now use them on everyone, and they have helped the appearance of these scars.
The placement of the scar is something that I have a lot more control over. My main objective is to try and place the scar in a position where a bathing suit bottom will cover it. To help with this, I ask my tummy tuck patients to bring a bathing suit bottom to the surgery center the day of surgery so that I can mark my scar to be covered by the bathing suit. But no string bikinis, please!
One of the exciting things about this is that people in the U.S. like different bathing suit styles than people in Brazil, for example. So what works in Rio in terms of scar placement may not work for tummy tuck patients in Cookeville, TN.
2. Adding Liposuction
The single most significant change that I have made to my tummy tucks has been the addition of liposuction to a traditional abdominoplasty: the lipoabdominoplasty. This idea was developed by some very talented plastic surgeons in Brazil. I had the pleasure of hearing Dr. Saldanha discuss this technique about 7 or 8 years ago in a meeting. What he said made so much sense to me that I began using this technique in almost all of my patients immediately— and the results are better.
For many years, it was thought that liposuction performed on the abdominal skin at the time of a tummy tuck could be dangerous: it could interfere with the circulation to the skin and cause severe healing problems. By adapting the operative technique, we are now able to use liposuction with the tummy tucks, and this has made all the difference in the world. Not only are the outcomes better, but some studies have shown low complication rates with the lipoabdominoplasty compared with the standard abdominoplasty.
3. Putting Safety First
Plastic surgeons are increasingly focused on the safety of all operations, particularly elective ones. One of the things we have been paying particularly close attention to is the prevention of deep venous thrombosis (DVT). This is when blood clots can form in the veins of your legs while you are asleep, under anesthesia, and immobile. The same thing can happen to people when they sit on a plane for a long time, like flying across the ocean.
There are some simple measures we employ in all patients to prevent this complication, such as pneumatic compression hose, which sequentially squeeze the leg to promote venous blood flow. However, I additionally evaluate all patients who are undergoing a tummy tuck on a scale (the Caprini DVR Risk Assessment), which quantifies the risk of this happening depending upon many different factors.
Once the risk level reaches a certain point, I may elect for a patient to administer to themselves a low level of blood thinner for ten days after surgery. No one was doing this at all 20 years ago, but now it is pretty commonplace. While the blood thinner is something of a nuisance, it does not significantly elevate the risk of bleeding after surgery, and it can help prevent a potentially dangerous complication.
4. Going Drainless
The reason drains are used with a tummy tuck is that there is a space created beneath the skin. The body will fill this space with fluid (serum), and the drains are used to remove this fluid. The concerns about not using drains are that you can get a collection of fluid, or a seroma, under the skin that will have to be addressed by aspirating the fluid with a needle and syringe. (Occasionally, this would happen after a drain was removed in the patients who had drains.)
I will confess to being a little slower than some to catch on to this, but I have almost eliminated the use of drains in my tummy tucks. (Watch my video below for more information.)
Again, this requires some modifications of the technique, but if one is willing to make these modifications, the drains aren’t necessary. The majority of surgeons keep using drains for this procedure. Still, I have seen fewer seromas by modifying the way I do the operation without drains than I was seeing in patients when I was using drains.
5. Removing Love Handles
While the tummy tuck is excellent at improving the contour of your front, it doesn’t do anything for the back, namely the hip rolls, the love handles, and the muffin top. Once the tummy is looking great, some women can still have issues with the muffin top hanging around the back. For this, in the right patients, we can add the excision of the love handles to the tummy tuck, which we have termed “the muffinator.” And you don’t have to be Arnold Schwarzenegger to do this!
This means that the scar will go around onto the back, frequently about 2/3 to 3/4 of the way around the torso. However, this does not extend the recovery process and can make a big difference to the outcome. (Some people only need liposuction of the love handles without skin excision, and this can be done as well.)
It’s always nice when you can make a good thing better as we have with tummy tucks. Most of the changes have not been radical redesigns of the surgery but have just improved the results of this operation.
You can see the difference in our before-and-after photo gallery. No doubt, there will be other changes to this and other operations as time goes on. My challenge is to not only to keep up with changes but also to understand which ones really make a difference and then to be open to incorporating them into what I do.
If you would like to learn more about body contouring options such as tummy tuck surgery and liposuction at my Knoxville, TN, practice, please contact us or call (865) 450-9253.
David B. Reath, MD
Note: This post was updated in November 2021.