When The Unexpected Happens After Plastic Surgery

Of the very large number of cosmetic surgery procedures that are performed each year in the United States, a certain number will undergo subsequent revision. While this is a concept explained to patients by their plastic surgeon beforehand, it is understandable that it falls on deaf ears for the most part. The euphoria of the upcoming outcome blocks any realistic consideration that anything but the best will happen. The decision to undergo cosmetic surgery is both emotional and optimistic.

Why does surgery not always turn out to be exactly as desired? While there can be numerous reasons, including the wrong operation for the problem or that the operation was not done well, but the most common reasons for these undesired outcomes are less obvious. How the body responds to the trauma of surgery and the not always predictable events of wound healing account for much of the need for revisional surgery. The occurrence of complications in cosmetic plastic surgery is uniquely different from that of most other types of surgeries. Unlike common surgical problems, such as infection or bleeding, the healing of a cosmetic surgery site may be perfect but the aesthetics of the healed site may still not be what was desired. Cosmetic surgery results are judged by a higher standard, they must both heal and look good as well. Even the avoidance of common wound healing problems is not enough in cosmetic surgery.

While the real number of the incidence or need for revision in cosmetic surgery will never be known, estimates are thrown around of around 15% on a national average. This estimated number will be quite different depending upon the type of procedure being performed. For example, any form of breast surgery carries a higher revisional risk than that of a facelift. Any operation that relies on an implantable device to achieve the outcome will always have more potential problems than those operations that don’t. While revisional surgery in most cases is minor and nothing in comparison to the original operation, potential patients need to appreciate that the need for secondary surgery in cosmetic procedures is not rare.

When postoperative complications occur and revisional surgery is needed, there is unhappiness on the part of both patient and plastic surgeon. The cosmetic patient is understandablely unhappy as they never really believe it would happen to them no matter how it was disclosed or what forms they signed. Such surgical problems happen to other people, no one thinks or hopes that it will happen to them. Other people make up statistics but not themselves. Patient naivety in this regard has been promoted, inadvertently, by cosmetic surgeon’s themselves through countless promotional efforts. Advertising ‘lunchtime facelifts’, ‘weekend recovery’, and other seemingly too good to be true procedures has only added to dumbing down that fact that it is real surgery with associated risks.

Like the patient, plastic surgeons are equally not pleased about the need for revisional surgery. There are many reasons for such a response by the surgeon from facing a patient’s disappointment, a perceived failure of their own skills and expertise, and how this result reflects on their own reputation and image. Sometimes, a difference in opinion may develop between the patient and surgeon as to the need and advisability of revisional surgery. In these circumstances, patients often seek out other surgeons to undergo their revisional surgery, getting a fresh perspective on their adverse outcome. When needed, however, surgical revisions should be done in the proper setting and under the appropriate circumstances. Certain minor revisions can be reasonably performed under local anesthesia in the office. This approach is simple and avoids the use of the operating room. Many times, however, this office approach to revisional surgery is overused in an effort to save the patient further expense. As a result, the desired outcome may still be suboptimal. In many cases of revisional surgery, the patient and surgeon needs to be willing to accept the additional arrangement and expense of an operating room to put themselves in a position where the procedure can be carried out properly.

The potential need for revisional surgery after a cosmetic procedure is a statistical reality. Revisional cosmetic surgery has associated physical, emotional, and economic consequences. It will often test the depth of the relationship and preoperative dialogue between plastic surgeon and patient.

Dr. Barry Eppley