Background: Liposuction is the most frequently performed cosmetic operation in Germany, with approximately 200,000 procedures performed in 2003. The public perception of liposuction as minor surgery fails to consider the potential of major complications or a possibly fatal outcome.
Methods: A retrospective analysis of severe or lethal complications related to cosmetic liposuction is presented. To collect pertinent information, the authors sent 3500 questionnaires to departments of pathology and forensic medicine, intensive care units, and others. After the identification of cases with major complications, the second phase of the investigation consisted of interviews with the physicians performing the liposuction.
Results: Two thousand two hundred seventy-five questionnaires (65 percent) were returned. The analyzed data showed 72 cases of severe complications, including 23 deaths following cosmetic liposuction in a 5-year period from 1998 to 2002. The most frequent complications were bacterial infections such as necrotizing fasciitis, gas gangrene, and different forms of sepsis. Further causes of lethal outcome were hemorrhages, perforation of abdominal viscera, and pulmonary embolism. Fifty-seven of 72 complications were clinically evident within the first 24 postoperative hours; 41 of these 72 liposuction procedures were performed using tumescent anesthesia and 17 of 72 were performed using true tumescent anesthesia, with four deaths.
Conclusions: Major risk factors for the development of severe complications are insufficient standards of hygiene, the infiltration of multiple liters of wetting solution, permissive postoperative discharge, and selection of unfit patients. The lack of surgical experience was a notorious contributing factor, particularly regarding the timely identification of developing complications. This is in fact the first study reporting deaths related to liposuction performed entirely under true tumescent anesthesia.