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A lot of people out there have looked at themselves in the mirror at some point in their lives and thought about getting plastic surgery. “How would I look with bigger breasts?” they’ve thought. Or, “I wonder whether liposuction would take care of my love handles.” But the procedure that’s been experiencing the biggest boom in popularity in recent years isn’t breast augmentation or liposuction. It’s brachioplasty, more commonly called arm lift surgery. Apparently these days, people are lifting their arms when they look in the mirror and thinking, “How can I make my arms look like Michelle Obama’s?”

The nation’s first lady may indeed be fueling a trend with her toned yet feminine upper arms. According to 2012 data compiled by the American Society of Plastic Surgeons® (ASPS), 31% of women said they would most like to have arms like Mrs. Obama. Actress Jennifer Aniston’s toned, tanned limbs came in second place with a respectable 29%.

Whatever the inspiration, there’s no denying the swelling popularity of this procedure that removes excess skin and fat. The ASPS statistics show that upper arm lifts in women are up a whopping 4,378% since 2000. That makes for a total of 15,457 surgeries in 2012. Most of those lifts were on women ages 40 to 54. Just 321 men had arm lifts in 2012.

Despite the soaring popularity, most people still don’t know a lot about this procedure, so here’s a brief guide in case you’re wondering about clipping your “bat wings,” as patients not-so-affectionately call their pre-surgery arms.

How an Arm Lift Works

arm lift

In an arm lift, a surgeon removes a strip of sagging, loose skin from the underside of the upper arms and stitches the skin back together. A lot of patients who get this procedure have lost massive amounts of weight and are left with drooping skin that’s noticeable and out of proportion with the rest of their arms. It’s possible to tone the muscles of the arms and to shed excess fat from them with diet and exercise, but once the skin has stretched to an advanced degree, there’s not much that can be done other than surgery.

The procedure has a very high satisfaction rate among patients. Users of RealSelf, a popular plastic surgery patient portal online, give it an average rating of around 86%. Most patients who get the surgery have been embarrassed about the look of their arms for a long time and are thrilled to be able to wear clothing they couldn’t before.
The major cosmetic drawback of the arm lift, though, is its scar. Incisions are different lengths for everyone depending how extensive their concerns are, but they generally run along the inside or back of the arm from armpit to elbow.

Good surgeons give patients instructions and techniques to minimize the appearance of their scars, and there is a variety of products available over the counter to help scars fade. Cosmetic professionals say the scar is a trade-off, as is the case with every surgery. The question for patients is whether the sleek silhouette is worth it.

Alternative Options

When it comes to loose, saggy skin on the arms, most doctors say there is no better treatment than brachioplasty. There have been some advances in recent years in various non-surgical skin tightening treatments, such as Ultherapy®, but these are mostly used for the more delicate skin of the face. There’s potential in fields such as laser, thermal, and ultrasonic energy, but current devices are not good alternatives to an arm lift.

Some patients who consult with surgeons about brachioplasty, though, find out from their doctors that their concerns are less about loose skin and more about stubborn excess fat. For women in particular, fat deposits on the upper arm can be extremely difficult to shed by exercising.

In such cases, patients can get good results from liposuction. The doctors at St. Louis Cosmetic Surgery, for instance, who are well regarded by their peers for body contouring surgery, sometimes use liposuction on the upper arms as a way to avoid the long scars that often accompany the traditional arm lift technique. Patients are instead left with small scars where their surgeons inserted a cannula, or a very thin surgical tube, to suction out fat cells. These incisions heal and fade faster, and patients usually have a quicker recovery. Liposuction is also sometimes used in conjunction with brachioplasty if a patient has both drooping skin and fat pockets that should be removed.

Armed for Safety

Along with the boom in popularity of these procedures to slim and smooth the upper arms of thousands of Americans has risen the need for patients to be extra careful about choosing a surgeon. Anytime a procedure “trends,” a bevy of unqualified practitioners jump at the opportunity to cash in. Patients should be proactive in protecting their health and their wallets from these kinds of risks.

Whenever patients select a doctor for any treatment, they should make sure that person is qualified by checking his or her credentials. Certification by a prestigious medical board is important, and membership in well-regarded societies or associations is a good sign.

When choosing a surgeon for brachioplasty or arm liposuction, in particular, patients should make sure their doctors are certified by The American Board of Plastic Surgery. They should also look for a surgeon who specializes in body contouring and has experience performing the same procedure they’re interested in. People can check out this guide on how to choose a plastic surgeon for more information.

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