Step into science fiction: A futuristic-looking machine is trained on you. It begins to emit a low-level hum, price but you don’t feel a thing. You read or play games on your BlackBerry. Then you go home.
A few weeks later, the little tummy bulge that has annoyed you for years is gone. Same with the love handles. Or your thighs are a couple of inches smaller. The procedure didn’t hurt. It involved no surgery, no anesthesia, no downtime. You just wrote a check—but one that wasn’t as big as if you’d had liposuction on those areas of fat that wouldn’t budge despite the morning sit-ups. Good news: This isn’t fiction. In 2010, the Food and Drug Administration approved this device that perform just that way. Zerona shrinks fat cells using cold laser light. This approval is the first in a new category of medical devices that eliminate fat without surgery. They work, but there are caveats.
ZERONA: ZAP FAT WITH LASER LIGHT
Lasers are typically thought of as hot, but “cold” lasers that emit variable-frequency pulsed waves are used in surgery for pain relief and now to get rid of fat. “It does seem too good to be true, but there’s a lot of science behind this,” says Steven Hopping, a cosmetic surgeon and otolaryngologist in DC. A former president of the American Academy of Cosmetic Surgery and a professor of surgery at George Washington University, Hopping has had a Zerona machine for about a year and a half. With Zerona, a patient lies down and a four-armed device is positioned over the body. To treat the tummy and thighs, the laser eye in the middle of the contraption is positioned over the abdomen, while the four arms are over the thighs. The laser is on for 40 minutes a session. Often, six sessions are spaced over a two-week period. Patients typically feel nothing, though some experience a tingle. Fats cells are emulsified, causing them to collapse and be emptied via the body’s lymphatic system. The shrunken fat cells remain but are smaller. In the study that prompted FDA approval, more than 80 percent of those in a Zerona trial lost an average of 3.64 inches combined over their waist, hip, and thigh areas. A control group that didn’t get Zerona averaged half an inch. The fat loss was evident in photos of participants. Although it wasn’t required in the trial, patients getting Zerona now are asked during treatment to avoid caffeine and alcohol, drink lots of water, and take a proprietary—some might say overpriced—vitamin supplement called Curva. Critics suggest that the Zerona effect is attributable to these things, but everyone in the FDA study did just Zerona without the diet and exercise modifications and still saw measurable effects. Zerona seems to have no adverse side effects. The laser operates at too low a level to affect deeper body tissues or skin. Blood studies conducted on those undergoing treatment were normal, and some people who had high or borderline-high cholesterol saw improvement. In studies, more than 80 percent of patients responded to treatment. Hopping says that perhaps 75 percent of those he treats are pleased; the rest experience little to no effect. Wanda Dyson, a DC internist who has a Zerona, reports about the same numbers, adding that with more sessions the likelihood of a response appears to increase. Both doctors say they’ve had a few patients lose as much as 12 inches. “Men are especially good candidates because they tend to carry fat around the waist,” says Hopping. “That fat often responds well.” Deborah Johnson of Arlington, a patient of Dyson’s, initially signed up for six Zerona treatments on her abdomen, thighs, and back. They worked so well that she got three more. “I started on a Monday, and by that weekend I was in my closet trying on clothes I hadn’t been able to wear in a long time,” Johnson says. She did Zerona last February and, when interviewed in December, said she had not only maintained the lost inches but lost more: “It inspired me to keep exercising and eating well.” “I love Zerona as a way to jump-start a healthy lifestyle change,” says Dyson. “People come in on a diet plateau, start seeing inches go away, then stick with their diet and exercise program.” Nobody can predict whether you’ll respond a little, a lot, or at all. A quick scan of Internet sites such as RealSelf.com shows that many consumers think Zerona is overhyped.
ULTIMATE BODY SCULPTING
Zerona is handy for losing a modest amount of fat, but to guarantee a sculpted look, liposuction “is still the gold standard,” says Michael Will, a board-certified cosmetic, oral, and maxillofacial surgeon in Urbana, Maryland. Whether done in a hospital, a clinic, or a doctor’s office, liposuction is real surgery. Sometimes general anesthesia is used, but the trend is toward local sedation with the patient awake and given calming drugs. To reduce postsurgical swelling, patients wear a compression garment for about two weeks. Final contours can take up to six months to appear. A patient should expect scarring where the cannula enters, although the marks fade. How sore someone is afterward varies according to pain tolerance as well as how much fat was removed and from how many sites. Other risks involved with lipo include possible infection and an uneven or rippled result. Five to 10 percent of patients need a second, shorter session to make adjustments. While anesthesia today is very safe, there’s always a degree of risk, especially with general. Any licensed doctor can perform liposuction. You’re safest in the hands of one who is board-certified in a surgical speciality and has performed lipo many times. Always ask if you’ll be continually attended while under anesthesia and whether emergency resuscitation equipment is available as well as staff trained to use it. If the answer to either question is no, go elsewhere.