Cosmetic surgery for teens?

In 2003, more than 223 000 cosmetic procedures were performed on patients 18 years of age or younger, and almost 39 000 were surgical procedures such as nose reshaping, breast lifts, breast augmentation, liposuction, and tummy tucks. As we consider under what circumstances plastic surgery is appropriate for teens, it is important to recognize that very few studies have been conducted to examine the risks for teens of these increasingly common procedures. Research is especially needed for the more controversial procedures such as breast implants, liposuction, and genital plastic surgery.

There is no question that reconstructive surgeries can benefit children and youth. Surgical procedures to correct cleft lips and palates, for example, are not controversial. Plastic surgery to correct unattractive facial features that can attract ridicule from other children, such as prominent noses and ears, are generally accepted in the United States. Cultural phenomena such as surgical makeovers on numerous television programs, however, make it increasingly difficult to agree on what constitutes a “normal” appearance and when the desire to improve one’s appearance is questionable or even crosses the line to psychopathology. In this commentary, I will focus on elective, cosmetic procedures on an otherwise healthy adolescent with no illness or defect.

Plastic Surgery in a Developing Teen

One of the concerns about plastic surgery on adolescents is that their bodies are still maturing. In addition to development that may occur in the late teens, growth charts indicate that the average girl gains weight between the ages of 18 and 21, and that is likely to change her desire or need for breast augmentation as well as liposuction. There are no epidemiological studies or clinical trials on the safety and long-term risks of these procedures for adolescents. Although the FDA approved saline breast implants for women ages 18 and older, it is legal for physicians to perform breast augmentation for anyone under 18 as an “off-label” use, and the number of teens 18 and younger undergoing breast augmentation tripled from 2002 to 2003. It was not until December 2004 that the American Society of Plastic Surgeons stated an official position against breast augmentation for patients under 18.

Understanding the Risks of Surgery

Will adolescents who want to improve their appearance rationally consider the risks? Studies by implant manufacturers report that most women have at least one serious complication within the first 3 years, including infection, hematomas and seromas, capsular contracture (a sometimes painful hardening of the breasts), loss of nipple sensation, and hypertrophic scarring [4]. Since breast implants typically last 10 years, an adolescent will require repeated surgeries throughout her lifetime. Breast implants also interfere with mammography and increase the likelihood of insufficient lactation when a woman tries to breast-feed.

Read the full article by Diana Zuckerman, PhD here.

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