The primary aging change in the cheek area consists of a combination of deflation and descent of the cheek fat pads, creating a hollowed appearance below the lower lids and deepened nasolabial folds (oblique lines which extend from each side of the nose to the area beside the corners of the mouth). Descent of the midface/cheek fat pad can also contribute to the exaggeration of marionette lines and downturning of the corner of the mouth.
This aging change is significant, but is often not fully appreciated as a feature which can age the face considerably. When I see a person who is in their sixties or older but doesn't 'look their age' (but hasn't had plastic surgery), quite often they will have cheeks which are full and prominent, a feature that the brain immediately associates with youth. Look at an infant!
Cheek area rejuvenation by mean of a mid face lift can be performed as part of a facelift procedure, but is also sometimes performed alone to specifically address deflation and descent of the cheek fat pad. The procedure is performed through two hidden incisions. One is made inside the mouth, at the apex of the space between the gums and the lower cheek. The second incision is hidden behind the hairline of the temple area. Through the intra-oral incision, the cheek fat pad is freed from the cheekbone. A suspension suture is used to grasp the cheek fat pad, and the suture is then passed below the skin to the temple-area incision. Upward traction on the suture elevates the cheek fat pad, and with it the corner of the mouth is elevated slightly. The nasolabial folds soften and in some cases can be almost completely eliminated. The suspension suture is then anchored to the deep soft tissues below the scalp, producing a permanent elevation of the midface.
A technique which does not require incisions or sutures and which I find applicable to more and more patients is structural fat grafting, which involves carefully and painstakingly grafting (by micro-injection) a patient's own fat into areas which benefit from volume restoration. This is an excellent alternative for facelift patients who have flattening of the midface without significant aging changes in the nasolabial folds or oral commissures (corners of the mouth). In selected patients, I have found this to be a powerful but less invasive means of restoring cheek volume and projection.
Structural fat grafting can also be utilized in patients undergoing a midface lift, if additional enhancement of the lateral aspect of the cheekbones is desired. The midface lift and structural fat grafting, alone or in combination, allow me to restore or create youthful cheek and lower lid contours, without the need for cheek implants. Aside from the associated risks of migration, infection, and bone resorption, I feel that cheek implants tend to produce results that are not natural-appearing, and for that reason I do not use them in any facial rejuvenation procedures.Structural fat grafting is a powerful tool for correcting one of the primary processes of facial aging: the gradual loss of facial soft tissue volume, which primarily represents the atrophy of facial fatty tissue. The importance of restoring facial fullness cannot be emphasized enough, for without it, very few facial cosmetic surgical procedures are truly rejuvenating. As we age the skeletal features of the face become more obvious, and create subtle visual clues that tell the observer 'this is an older person'. Fat atrophy is often very obvious when it appears as hollowness in the temple area and as flattening of formerly full cheeks, but can also exist as more subtle changes that still convey an appearance of advancing age, such as the development of a hollow in the space between the upper lid and eyebrow, or as indentations in a formerly smooth and gently curving jawline.
Lifting skin and trimming the excess has been the standard approach to the treatment of facial aging for centuries, but when performed without some means of restoring the youthful fullness of facial soft tissues, the result is an older-looking person with tighter skin. The word 'rejuvenation' means literally 'to restore youthfulness' or 'to make young again', so if the goal of surgery is to rejuvenate the face then it cannot be accomplished solely by means of redraping the skin and removing the excess.
In my practice fat grafting is not an afterthought that is thrown into the surgical plan for the occasional patient. It is a key component of almost every major facial rejuvenation surgery that I perform. It is in fact that very first part of the surgical procedure for my patients undergoing a full facial rejuvenation surgery.
Fat grafting also gives the surgeon the ability to provide a minimally invasive, quick recovery solution for some of the earliest signs of facial aging, in many patients long before they could or should consider a more involved (and much longer recovery) procedure like a facelift. Most people show evidence of facial soft tissue atrophy in their thirties, long before they develop the degree of skin laxity that warrants skin redraping and removal. So younger patients now have a means for 'turning the clock back' by maintaining or restoring facial fullness through structural fat grafting. These enhancements look beautiful and natural, not like surgery, and over and over I hear fat grafting patients tell me that "none of my friends or co-workers can figure out why I look so great".
As with any cosmetic surgical procedure, there can certainly be 'too much of a good thing'. Over-grafting of fatty tissue will distort facial features and produce unnatural proportions that look like surgery rather than appearing to turn back the clock. An important part of my preoperative evaluation is reviewing photographs with patients from their twenties and thirties (and from their forties for patients in their sixties and seventies). Such photographs are invaluable in confirming the manner in which a face has aged, and in planning a surgery that is designed to help a patient look more like their youthful self.