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Risks & Rewards of Plastic Surgery


Updated March 09, 2009

The Rewards

Psychological - For many patients, successful plastic surgery can lead to an increase in self-esteem and confidence, which can have a snowball effect on many areas of one’s life. Often, the correction of a “problem” perceived by the patient can mean a loss or reduction of self-consciousness or social anxiety which has been holding the patient back in life. For others, it may make them more outgoing because they feel less vulnerable to the cruelty of others. (Imagine a woman who as a young teen was mocked for her “buck-toothed” smile, and eventually stopped smiling until she finally was able to have her smile surgically corrected.)

Professional and Social - It has been shown in countless studies that more attractive people are generally perceived as more intelligent, more honest, more successful, and more capable. These same studies have shown correlations between attractiveness and professional recognition, hiring decisions, promotions, and differences in salary levels. Some studies have even shown that attractive people receive better and quicker service in restaurants and in retail establishments. This suggests that surgery to improve one’s appearance may indeed be a boon to one’s career and/or social status, especially when a person moves or works in creative or youth-driven industry.

Another reality for more attractive people is that they often have increased romantic opportunities, and a better selection of potential mates from which to choose. They also can tend to have an easier time making friends. These factors make for a livelier social life all around.

Health and Quality of Life - There are many health and quality of life benefits that may be ascribed to the benefits of plastic surgery. For the patient whose vision is improved dramatically by an eyelid lift which removes the hooded portion of the eyelid, the rewards are obvious. For the patient who has a breast reduction and experiences a relief of long-standing daily pain, quality of life can increase dramatically. For the patient who has 20 lbs of loose hanging skin removed from his or her body, it can mean feeling more comfortable with increased levels of physical activity, which in turn can positively affect both mental and physical health. For a patient who has lived with an obvious visible disfigurement, reconstructive surgery can make that person feel free again---able to face a world that is no longer staring, or worse---avoiding any eye contact. This can be a tremendous life-changing event.

The Risks

Health Risks - We begin with the most obvious of risks. Call it reconstructive, cosmetic, or plastic---it is still surgery. People have risked and lost their lives and limbs, and suffered devastating disfigurement and scarring as a result of plastic surgery gone wrong. The worst outcomes are rare, but risk is nonetheless a reality.

While each type of surgery has its own risks that are specific to that particular procedure, certain risks are common to virtually all surgical procedures. These risks include:

  • infection
  • excessive or unexpected bleeding (hemorrhage or hematoma)
  • blood clots
  • tissue death
  • delayed healing
  • anesthesia risks (including shock, respiratory failure, drug or allergic reactions, cardiac arrest, coma, death)
  • pneumonia
  • loss or change of sensation
  • need for secondary surgeries/dissatisfaction with results
  • paralysis or less severe nerve damage

Psychological and Social – How will you feel if your plastic surgery makes you fodder for gossip among your social circle? What if your partner exhibits signs of jealousy or insecurity because of your new and improved looks? Will you be totally comfortable with the increased attention you get with your newly enlarged breasts? What if you still feel “ugly” or inadequate after your “problem” has been surgically corrected?

The potential adverse psychological and social effects of plastic surgery have a lot to do with a patient’s pre-op expectations, and his or her pre-op mental and emotional state. It’s important to understand that while plastic surgery can bring positive rewards, it will not change your life, your problems, or your relationships. It is also important to understand that there is no such thing as physical “perfection”.

Unsatisfactory Results - Not every surgery is successful, and unlike most “medically necessary” surgery, the success of plastic surgery is quite subjective. Unsatisfactory aesthetic results (including contour irregularities, asymmetry, excessive or unfavorable scarring, etc.) can be disheartening or even devastating for some patients. Worse yet, the unluckiest of patients can be left with persistent pain, damage to vital tissues, or even nerve damage/localized paralysis.

Weighing it Out: Risks Vs. Rewards

The potential rewards of plastic surgery are highly individual. Many plastic surgery patients say their only regret is that they didn’t do it sooner. However, there are also many who wish they had never done it at all, or who at least wish they had done more research or chosen a different surgeon.

Of course, risk can be mitigated by doing your homework and becoming a very informed patient. Do not let price be the foremost determining factor in choosing a surgeon. Check credentials and references, ask lots of questions, and be on the look-out for red flags. Be sure that you go into surgery in the best health possible by taking care of yourself, and don’t let your desire for the surgery overshadow any serious health considerations.

While the risks of plastic surgery do vary from one procedure to another, certain risks are common to all surgery, and some of the risks are grave. Only you can decide if it’s worth it for you. Educate yourself. (About.com is a good place to start.) Take into account all the pros and cons. Talk it over with your loved ones.

If you decide to go for it, choose the best surgeon you can find. Follow his or her pre- and post-op instructions to the letter. Then enjoy your new look!


American Society of Plastic Surgeons website


Interview with Adam Tattelbaum, MD – conducted on 12-17-07

Physical Attractiveness; Berscheid, E., & Walster, E., In L. Berkowitz (ed., ) Advances in Experimental Social Psychology. Vol. 7, 1974

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