Surgical vs. Non-Surgical Body Contouring – Which Method Is Best?

Written by Timothy McGee, MD, Board Certified Plastic Surgeon on January 24, 2020 5 Comments

surgical and non-surgical body contouring

Liposuction was the gold standard of body contouring for many years. A relatively simple surgical procedure, liposuction provides dramatic results by enhancing body contours and entire silhouettes. The rise of Botox and dermal fillers, however, ignited the demand for an effective non-surgical lipo alternative, spurring the development of non-invasive treatments like Ultrashape, CoolSculping, and TruSculpt.

Today’s non-surgical body contouring treatments are very effective, yielding great results without the risks, downtime, or pain of surgery. Patients who wish to get rid of stubborn fat no longer have to settle for surgery. They now have a choice between surgical and non-surgical body contouring.

Here are the advantages and disadvantages of surgical body contouring vs. non-surgical body contouring:


Surgical body contouring like liposuction or abdominoplasty (tummy tuck surgery) provide near immediate results after a single treatment session. While it may take some time for swelling and bruising in treated areas to resolve after surgery, once the body fully heals the final result of surgical body contouring is realized. In contract, the results of non-surgical body contouring treatments are “staged in” over time as the patient undergoes a succession of treatments. A single CoolSculpting treatment, for example, often removes around 20% of the targeted fat cells in a treatment area. Thus, non-surgical methods require more time before the final end result can be achieved.

Additionally, surgical body contouring treatments typically yield a more dramatic and longer lasting results compared to nonsurgical methods. This is because surgical methods enable providers to manipulate the body first-hand by surgically excise excess loose skin and lax muscles in addition to removing targeted fat cells.


Surgical body contouring is by definition more invasive than non-surgical alternatives, which are often marketed as being “minimally invasive” since there are no needles or surgical incisions involved. Surgical methods employ small (< 1.0cm) incisions to directly access the subcutaneous tissue with surgical instruments in order to reshape the contour of the body. Non-surgical treatments do not use surgical instruments and are made to be gentle and minimally uncomfortable. This heightened level of invasiveness is what allows surgical methods to yield more immediate and dramatic results as discussed in the previous section.


After undergoing a surgical body contouring procedure, many patients will mild to moderate pain which will be addressed through prescription pain medication. Post-surgery pain often resolves within 10 days of the procedure. Non-surgical body contouring is less painful, with patients often citing little to no discomfort during each treatment session. No anesthesia (during the procedure) or pain medication is needed.


Surgical body contouring treatments require dedicated recovery periods (downtime) where there are restrictions to a patient’s daily activities. Depending on the procedure it may take a week or two for patients to return to work or school, and up to six weeks before some forms of strenuous exercise can resume. Here’s more information on liposuction recovery and tummy tuck surgery recovery.

A big benefit on non-surgical procedures is that no recovery time is required. Patients can resume their routine activities, including returning to work and exercise regimens, immediately following the treatment.

Number of Treatments

Patients who are looking for more immediate results should choose surgical body contouring, which only requires a single treatment session. In contrast, non-surgical body contouring like CoolSculpting requires multiple treatment sessions spread out over time before the most dramatic results are achieved.


While the price tag for surgical body contouring appears higher at first glance, patients should keep in mind that non-surgical methods may require numerous treatment sessions. Patients should consider the total procedure cost (including the aggregate cost of all recommended non-surgical treatment sessions needed to achieve the final end result) when doing a cost comparison.

This blog post lists the average national costs of body contouring treatments.

Which Treatment is Best?

Surgical and non-surgical techniques each have their own benefits and drawbacks. Patients who are looking to address larger pockets of fat, want a more immediate result, and do not mind going through a recovery period may benefit more from a surgical method like liposuction. Patients who are looking to target smaller problem areas, want to avoid the pain and necessary recovery inherent to surgery, and do not mind waiting longer for results may be more interested in non-surgical treatments like CoolSculpting.

There are also specific areas or conditions that make non-surgical methods a better choice. You can learn more about these factors in this blog post.

Finally, the best resource when deciding between surgical and non-surgical body contouring is a skilled and experienced provider of both options. An in-person consultation will allow an experienced provider to develop a winning treatment plan based on each patient’s unique body characteristics and result goals.

Timothy McGee, MD

Dr. McGee has been practicing plastic surgery for more than 18 years in all areas of the field, including cosmetic surgery and reconstructive breast and facial surgery. Dr. McGee is board certified by the American Board of Plastic Surgery and the American Board of Surgery. He has numerous hospital affiliations in the Round Rock and greater Austin areas and is a member of the American Society of plastic Surgeons, American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, American College of Surgeons and Austin Smiles.

5 Responses to “Surgical vs. Non-Surgical Body Contouring – Which Method Is Best?”

  1. Avatar Ford says:

    So excited for my first CoolSculpting session!!!!! 🙂

  2. Nice Blog! Thanks for sharing this.

  3. Avatar Sarah says:

    It’s great to learn that surgical body contouring will have more dramatic results. Maybe I should find a surgeon to help me get my natural waist back. Since having our three kids, I feel like my waist is nonexistent and my ankles are permanently puffy 🙁

  4. Avatar George says:

    Ya but I bet surgical better than non-surgical. I understand advances in technology but nothing works better than actually sucking the fat out

  5. Avatar Olivia says:

    Thank you for pointing out how non-surgical treatment will take longer to see results than with a surgical treatment. I’ve been thinking about liposuction or body sculpting to help with reducing fat. I’ve been leaning towards non-surgical options but will keep in mind that it will take longer and multiple sessions.

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