Fat grafting is a technique where the harvested adipose tissue is injected into various compartments underneath the skin. The term autologous fat grafting refers to the procedure where the source of fat is the same person on whom it is to be used. For many years this technique has been used for a variety of different purposes. Autologous adipose tissue is considered by many to be an ideal filler material for facial rejuvenation, as it represents one of the most biocompatible dermal fillers with low allergenicity, produces a soft and natural result, and may have semi-permanent to permanent effects. This article is focused on the utility of this procedure for facial rejuvenation.
As the human body ages, there are several age-related changes that occur to the face. Gravity causes descent of the facial soft tissues and creates unpleasing folds and shadows (e.g., nasolabial folds, tear troughs, marionette lines, etc.) often associated with an aged appearance. Moreover, patients experience a decrease in facial volume secondary to a combination of dermal thinning, muscular atrophy, fat volume loss, and reduction in girth of bones. While gravity-related changes are traditionally addressed with "lifting" procedures such as facelift, browlift, and neck-lift, to name a few, the loss of facial volume can be addressed with various filler materials (e.g., fat grafting) and has recently gained popularity as an adjunctive target for those who perform facial rejuvenation procedures.
The study of facial anatomy and its structural relationships is necessary for performing this procedure well and limiting the complications.
The harvested fat, often taken from the flank, inner thigh, or abdomen, has to be injected into the selected tissue planes only after careful planning. Identifying the proper location and depth of the fat compartment to be addressed is paramount. The major compartments of the face for the purpose of rejuvenation include the following:
Each of these spaces can be further divided into units on the same plane. It requires considerable experience to understand the outcome of injecting into the different spaces. The reader is directed to further review of the various compartments of the face and their relation to aesthetic procedures.
Lastly, the face can be divided into several units to plan facial rejuvenation. Understanding of these units enables the surgeons to select appropriate sites of fat transfer as well as the required volume and techniques. Also, several complications can be avoided with the knowledge of working with different facial units. While a detailed description of the anatomy of the face, particularly in regard to aging, is beyond the scope of this paper, the reader is directed to further reading.
Facial rejuvenation, in its essence, represents any procedure (surgical and non-surgical) employed to make the face look younger. Autologous fat grafting intended for facial rejuvenation not only restores volume to the face but also can revitalize skin by improving tone and texture.
The age-related changes in the face that can be addressed and/or camouflaged with autologous fat grafting include:
Apart from treating the aging face, autologous fat grafting has utility for several other problems that can be performed either alone or in conjunction with facial rejuvenation. The indications concerning the face include:
There are instances where fat grafting may not be the ideal rejuvenation procedure and could be unsafe in certain scenarios, particularly if a general anesthetic is to be employed. Hence, it may be contraindicated for the following reasons:
Fat grafting requires the following equipment:
Based on the method of fat processing (e.g., sedimentation, filtering, washing, and centrifugation), the following may be required:
The team performing a fat grating may include attending and resident surgeons, anesthesiologists, nursing staff, and operative room technicians.
Informed consent should be obtained. The patient should understand all of the risks and benefits and alternatives to the procedure. It is important to manage the expectations of the patient and address any questions about the procedure he/she may have. Also, the possibility of revision procedures has to be explained as a sizeable fraction of the patients may need augmentation in the future.
Pre-operative evaluation and consultation with a physician are required to obtain the clearance for the surgery. This is important as certain medical conditions like bleeding disorders, anemia, and certain drugs like NSAIDs may affect the outcome of the surgery. A patient on aspirin or NSAIDs may have to stop taking the medication 2 weeks before the surgery.
Pre-operative photographs should be obtained. The selection of potential fat donor sites should be discussed beforehand. Also, the recipient site is carefully examined to determine the amount of fat needed for the procedure.
Before the surgery, the necessary donor and recipient sites have to be prepared. In men, facial hair may need to be removed for better visualization. The zones of adherence (ZOA) are areas of increased fibrosis that should be avoided as liposuction to these regions increases the risk of trauma and/or contour irregularities. Hence, these areas should be marked in advance to avoid them.
At the time of surgery, a general anesthetic procedure may require repeat evaluation by the anesthesiologist. After transfer onto the table, the patient may be given the anesthesia. For local anesthesia, it is recommended to use a nerve block rather than local infiltration as lidocaine can affect the fat graft viability.
Fat is retrieved from the donor sites, which have a rich fat reservoir. The most common donor sites are the abdomen, periumbilical area, buttocks, medial, lateral, and anterior thigh.
The first step in harvesting fat is to use a wetting solution for adipose tissue suspension. The composition of the wetting solution for facial rejuvenation cases, which are often smaller than other fat grafting cases (e.g., breast reconstruction) and may be performed under local anesthesia, the composition of the wetting solution may resemble the following ratio: 500 mL normal saline, 25 mL of 2% lidocaine, 0.5 mL epinephrine (1 to 100,000). The solution is then infiltrated to the area from where the fat has to be retrieved, usually in a 1:1 ratio to the amount of fat planning to be harvested (i.e., if 50 cc of fat is to be harvested, then 50 cc of the wetting solution should be injected).
After 15 minutes of allowing the anesthetic to take effect, a stab incision is made with a scalpel. A blunt fat harvesting cannula attached either to a Luer lock syringe or a closed suction machine with low negative pressure is inserted into the donor site, and the fat is removed by a gentle back and forth movement. Appropriate care should be taken to adjust the technique so that there's minimal blood during this process, as blood may negatively affect the graft's viability. The plunger should be drawn back just 1 mL to 2 mL to create adequate negative pressure. If a suction machine is used, the machine should be set at the lowest tension to lessen the shear stress on the adipocytes and thus promote viability.
Following the harvest of the fat, several redundant components like oil, dead adipocytes, blood, and local anesthetics are also present in the solution. The presence of any of these may compromise graft uptake by promoting graft necrosis, inflammation, and vasoconstriction. Fat processing, or refining, can be carried out by any of the following three processes:
The sedimentation and centrifugation lead to the formation of 3 layers. The middle layer contains the viable fat of interest. The uppermost layer contains oil and destroyed fat cells, which can be removed with absorbent material (e.g., gauze). The lowermost layer will have water, blood, lidocaine, and epinephrine, which should also be discarded, typical by draining the syringe containing the fat.
The processed fat middle layer is transferred to multiple 1 mL syringes, and the placement of the graft is performed. Frequent hand passes of 0.1 mL are used to deliver the fat parcels. The fat should be delivered with withdrawing movements to deposit the fat with minimal resistance. The passes are also performed "3-dimensionally" in different pathways and levels, as placement in different tissue planes leads to better aesthetic outcomes. Overcorrection is a very common practice to take into account future resorption (up to 80%) of the fat, but the evidence regarding definitive survival rates is conflicting. In general, slight overcorrection (up to 30%) is acceptable. To avoid stress on the graft, compression garments are advised to be worn for 2-3 days after the procedure, though longer periods may prove useful.
NOTE: The use of platelet-rich plasma (PRP) is an emerging area where the blood of the patient may be used to extract the PRP, which is injected along with the fat to improve the chances of survival of the fat graft.
Consideration of Facial Aesthetic Units
The injection of fat into the facial units is mandated by the surgeon's plan and keeping in mind the desired outcome. Every unit has its own approach with minor differences in techniques and instrument use. Here we elucidate a few general points for the more commonly injected areas of the face:
Despite the most meticulous harvesting, processing, and grafting techniques, there exist several complications associated with fat grafting:
The graft loss and bruising can be minimized by maintaining adequate atraumatic technique to ensure improved viability of graft and minimal hematoma formation. Cold compress is considered to be helpful in the first 3 days for post-operative ecchymosis, but too much icing could lead to vasoconstriction and risk graft loss. Vigorous activity should be avoided for 2 to 3 weeks after the procedure.
Blindness is a rare complication of fat grafting. High-pressure injection into the supratrochlear artery causes the fat to reach the ophthalmic artery. Once the pressure is released, the fat embolizes in an anterograde direction and eventual occlusion of the retinal artery can cause blindness. The blindness that is caused by fat grafting may require urgent intervention. The patient should be transferred to the hospital immediately. The physician, at first contact, should make efforts to reduce the intraocular pressure. Timolol 0.5% drops, aspirin 325 mg, and acetazolamide 500 mg could be given to the patient while awaiting the transfer to the hospital.
Fat embolism can also cause a stroke. The signs of stroke must be observed for patients undergoing fat grafting.
Facial swelling and bruises are quite common after fat grafting. It is important to distinguish it from cellulitis that may present with fever, warmth, erythema, and tenderness. The symptoms are self-resolving but often are prolonged. The high vascularity of the face is responsible for swelling and bruising. The swelling is treated with facial lymphatic massage, therapeutic ultrasound, explaining the patient about the prolonged nature of symptoms, and offering reassurance.
While the face defines a person's identity, nevertheless, an attractive face promotes self-esteem, trust, approachability, and success. Autologous fat grafting for facial rejuvenation represents a powerful tool in the plastic surgeon's armamentarium when creating a youthful and attractive appearance of the face. In addition to its volumizing effects and skin benefits, autologous facial fat grafting remains an ideal filler choice for facial rejuvenation due to its longevity, cost-effectiveness, biocompatibility, risk profile, and satisfaction rates compared to other dermal fillers.
The procedures include the evaluation of recipient and donor areas, as well as fat harvesting, processing, and reinjection. Inappropriate treatment at any of the steps in this link may affect the final outcome. The surgery has certain unique requirements like cannula specific to the area of interest, disposal of unused fat and equipment for harvesting, processing, and transfer. These requirements need to be communicated by the surgeon to the operative team prior to the surgery. Any instructions about the need for additional personnel or expertise has to be conveyed beforehand. Nurses and other team personnel should be able to effectively communicate with the patient to inquire about the expectations for the surgery and the patient's understanding of the outcome and possible complications. Facial rejuvenation is often a delicate issue for the patient as it is associated with the identity of a person. Any misconceptions and queries of the patient have to be resolved beforehand.
The imaging of the patient, if obtained, should be discussed with the radiologist in order to gain further insight into the facial anatomy of the patient. Such radio-conference sessions are especially necessary when operating on a case with a history of remote facial trauma or pathology. In the case where fat grafting is a part of complex surgery like facial reconstruction, collaboration with maxillofacial surgeon, orthopedic surgeon, orthodontic surgeon, and interventional radiologists may be necessary. Cases with comorbidities have to be given attention as they may have unintended consequences from the surgery. Patients with cardiovascular comorbidities may require cardiology consultation and, in certain cases, require to see a cardiac anesthesiologist. [Level 5]
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