Wide variations in cellulite treatments

The battle of the bulge now has its own task force.

The American Cellulite Task Force, formed earlier this year, seeks to uncover the perfect treatment for cellulite – “one of the world’s most misunderstood maladies” – according to executive director Michel Van Welden.

“Most women will get it, regardless of age, regardless of weight,” said Van Welden, a physical therapist who has researched cellulite’s causes and potential cures for 26 years.

Ninety percent of women experience “lumpy, textured skin” caused by hormones and genetics, according to Dr. Howard Murad, an El Segundo, Calif., based dermatologist and author of The Cellulite Solution (St. Martin’s Press, 2005).

Van Welden characterizes the condition as “an alteration of the connective tissue.” Murad says it can be defined as a “medical disorder.” But experts agree that cellulite is a normal part of women’s physiology.

So are women crazy to try to cure something that’s completely normal?

It depends on whom you ask.

“A woman who feels good about who she is isn’t going to be caught up about whether or not she has cellulite,” said therapist Marilyn Wallace, coordinator of the eating disorder recovery program at Del Amo Hospital in Torrance, Calif. “The aesthetic is so prevalent in Southern California that the female form is malleable and made-to-order.”

Women are the primary supporters of the $20 billion cosmetic industry and underwent more than 10 million cosmetic procedures in 2004, according to the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery.

And many still hope to rid themselves of cellulite – the dimpled, cottage cheese-looking fat that collects on hips, thighs and bottoms.

The term “cellulite” to describe this female fat pattern first surfaced in French medical literature in the 1920s. But the American Medical Association keeps no clinical data on cellulite. According to Columbia University’s Health Education Program Web site, cellulite is “plain ol’ ordinary fat.”

Its dimpled appearance results from where it’s stored: at the hypodermal level, just beneath the surface of the skin. Compression of the connective tissues that hold skin and muscles together further exacerbates the mattresslike effect.

“It’s a problem of fluid retention, fat and connective tissue,” Van Welden said. “It can affect a woman’s health. If you don’t like your body and you don’t feel good, it can alter your life and your personal life.”

Cellulite treatments range from surgical to topical, from diet and lifestyle changes to deep-tissue massage, with costs running from a few dollars to a few hundred dollars. They include:

– Body wraps: Body wraps induce sweating and can improve skin texture, Murad writes. They do not affect fat cells or connective tissue, but may temporarily reduce the appearance of cellulite.

– Cosmetics: Experts differ on the efficacy of topical cellulite treatments. Murad recommends products that contain alpha and beta hydroxy acids and a host of other herbs and extracts to stimulate blood flow and exfoliate and smooth the skin. Van Welden says he doesn’t know of any cosmetic product “that really works” on cellulite.

– Deep-tissue massage: Deep massage can loosen connective tissue and stimulate blood flow, Murad says. Carole Maggio Day Spa in Redondo Beach, Calif., offers a heated, deep-tissue massage designed specifically to improve the look of cellulite.

“It stimulates circulation,” Maggio said. “The strong sweeping motion reverses gravity.”

One client, who asked that her name not be published, has had more than a dozen of Maggio’s 30-minute treatments.

“I’ve lost a lot of inches,” said the 43-year-old, who also tried endermologie and mesotherapy (see below) to treat cellulite. “The skin looks more alive, there’s less dimpling and it makes me feel more energetic.”

Maggio recommends an initial series of 10 to 20 treatments, followed by weekly maintenance treatments.

– Endermologie: Van Welden describes this 20-year-old technique as the “No. 1 gold standard” of cellulite treatment.

“It addresses fluid retention, improves blood circulation and addresses fibrosis through the mechanical manipulation of the skin,” he said.

The technique uses gentle suction to lift fatty tissues while mechanical rollers knead the skin, deeply massaging the subdermal connective tissues. Each treatment takes 45 to 90 minutes.

Like Maggio’s manual treatment, a series of sessions initially are recommended, followed by monthly maintenance.

– Mesotherapy: This technique, developed more than 50 years ago in France to treat arthritic patients, has become an increasingly popular cellulite treatment. It involves multiple injections of medicines into the mesoderm, just beneath the skin’s surface, according to Jennifer Lobaton, a registered nurse who performs the procedure at Skin Savvy Medical Aesthetic Center in Hermosa Beach, Calif.

“The results (for cellulite) are wonderful and they’re permanent,” she said. “It breaks down the fibrous tissue that creates the dimpling effect and stimulates cell metabolism.”

Lobaton uses a hair-thin needle to administer 20 to 50 injections to the affected area. Each session takes 20 to 45 minutes, and a series of treatments typically are recommended.

– Exercise: Even fitness devotees are among the 90 percent of women with cellulite. Because cellulite is situated at the hypodermal level, it is not readily burned as fuel by the body.

“Exercise will help burn calories,” Van Welden said. “It will improve appearance and health, but not cellulite.”

– Supplements: Murad recommends a supplement regimen to provide the body with the nutrients it needs to repair damage to cells and connective tissues. Glucosamine, lecithin and essential fatty acids support healthy skin, he writes. Murad offers a “Firm and Tone” supplement package designed to address cellulite and stretch marks. Van Welden suggests combining supplements with other cellulite treatments.

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