Thermal and elastic response of subcutaneous tissue with different fibrous septa architectures to RF heating: numerical study

Lasers Surg Med. 2015 Feb;47(2):183-95. doi: 10.1002/lsm.22301. Epub 2015 Feb 4.


Background and objective: Radiofrequency currents are commonly used in dermatology to treat cutaneous and subcutaneous tissues by heating. The subcutaneous morphology of tissue consists of a fine, collagenous and fibrous septa network enveloping clusters of adipocyte cells. The architecture of this network, namely density and orientation of septa, varies among patients and, furthermore, it correlates with cellulite grading. In this work we study the effect of two clinically relevant fibrous septa architectures on the thermal and elastic response of subcutaneous tissue to the same RF treatment; in particular, we evaluate the thermal damage and thermal stress induced to an intermediate- and a high-density fibrous septa network architecture that correspond to clinical morphologies of 2.5 and 0 cellulite grading, respectively.

Study design/materials and methods: We used the finite element method to assess the electric, thermal and elastic response of a two-dimensional model of skin, subcutaneous tissue and muscle subjected to a relatively long, constant, low-power RF treatment. The subcutaneous tissue is constituted by an interconnected architecture of fibrous septa and fat lobules obtained by processing micro-MRI sagittal images of hypodermis. As comparison criteria for the RF treatment of the two septa architectures, we calculated the accumulated thermal damage that corresponds to 63% loss in cell viability.

Results: Electric currents preferentially circulated through the fibrous septa in the subcutaneous tissue. However, the intensity of the electric field was higher within the fat because it is a poor electric conductor. The power absorption in the fibrous septa relative to that in the fat varied with septum orientation: it was higher in septa with vertical orientation and lower in septa with horizontal orientation. Overall, maximum values of electric field intensity, power absorption and temperature were similar for both fibrous septa architectures. However, the high-density septa architecture (cellulite grade 0) had a more uniform and broader spatial distribution of power absorption, resulting in a larger cross-sectional area of thermal damage (≈1.5 times more). Volumetric strains (expansion and contraction) were small and similar for both network architectures. During the first seconds of RF exposure, the fibrous septa were subjected to thermal expansion regardless of orientation. In the long term, the fibrous septa contracted due to the thermal expansion of fat. Skin and muscle were subjected to significantly higher Von Mises stresses (measure of yield) or distortion energy than the subcutaneous tissue.

Conclusion: The distribution of electric currents within subcutaneous tissues depends on tissue morphology. The electric field is more intense in septum oriented along the skin to muscle (top to bottom) direction, creating lines or planes of preferential heating. It follows that the more septum available for preferential heating, the larger the extent of volumetric RF-heating and thermal damage to the subcutaneous tissue. Thermal load alone, imposed by long-exposure to heating up to 50 °C, results in small volumetric expansion and contraction in the subcutaneous tissue. The subcutaneous tissue is significantly less prone to non-reversible deformation by a thermal load than the skin and muscle.

Keywords: cellulite; fat; fibrous septa; hyperthermia; hypodermis; modeling; radiofrequency heating; skin; tissue mechanics.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adipose Tissue / radiation effects*
  • Elasticity / radiation effects
  • Finite Element Analysis
  • Humans
  • Models, Biological
  • Muscles / radiation effects*
  • Radio Waves*
  • Skin / radiation effects*
  • Subcutaneous Tissue / radiation effects*
  • Thermal Conductivity