When talking about radio frequency (RF) in the medical field we could be referring to several types of devices used by clinicians and non-clinicians for different scopes, from cauterizing bleeding vessels during surgery, to cutting out benign or malignant growths on the skin, to the applications in physical therapy and rehabilitation, to the use by aestheticians in aesthetic centers and SPAs. What makes the difference is the amount of energy (the frequency) that the device is applying to the tissue. In this blog post, we are going to talk about the cosmetic applications of this technology when the treatment is performed by a qualified physician.
To understand how radio frequency works, it might be helpful to understand the composition of the skin. It is composed of three layers: an outer visible layer on the surface called epidermis, an intermediate layer rich in collagen located under the surface called the dermis and an inner layer beneath the dermis called the hypodermis, which is made of a layer of fat with a network of collagen fibers interconnected.
When the collagen of these three layers is damaged by solar overexposure, as a result of family inheritance or simply due to the natural aging process, your skin begins to lose tone and show flaccidity. Logically, treatments that only work on the surface cannot do anything to restore the collagen in the inner layers of the skin.
And here is where the radio frequency plays the main role, these devices use electromagnetic waves in a frequency range of 3 to 300 GHz. These waves induce vibrations in the water molecules inside the cells. This movement of the molecules produces friction in the tissues and this friction is translated into heat. We can say, therefore, that radio frequency produces heat in depth and allows reaching the innermost layers of the skin, such as the dermis. The heating of the dermis modifies the original properties of the collagen fibers denaturing them without injury to the skin surface. The shrinking of the collagen fibers in response to heat is what produces an immediate improvement of the skin. The heat also causes the regeneration of the collagen fibers in the long term; these changes will allow an even more noticeable improvement several weeks after the treatment.
Although there are different devices and the results can be variable, with most radio frequency devices it is possible to see some improvement in the firmness of the skin in people who have undergone just one treatment.
Not all the devices are the same:
- Unipolar (monopolar) radio frequency devices, which pass electrical current by using a single electrode plus a grounding electrode positioned under the treated area that serves as a low resistance path for current flow to complete the electrical circuit, heating and treating the tissue at a deep level.
- Bipolar radio frequency devices, which pass electrical current only between two electrodes applied to the skin, heating and treating superficial tissue.
- Tripolar radio frequency devices, which combine the two previous technologies and pass electrical current between two electrodes and one grounding pad, simultaneously heating both superficial and deep tissue layers.
The radio frequency has fantastic results in terms of improving the signs of facial aging and promoting hydration, ending the dryness of the skin and wrinkles thanks to the stimulation and repair of the collagen found in the subcutaneous layers. In addition to promoting the regeneration of collagen, it also favors lymphatic drainage and improves skin circulation. The treatment produces an immediate lifting effect, achieving quick and lasting results on the skin.
Indications of radiofrequency treatment
The most appropriate indication is for patients with mild/moderate skin aging and wrinkling.
Too deep or too superficial wrinkles will not benefit from RF treatment. Patients with significant skin laxity and/or ptosis are not ideal candidates either.
Contraindications of radiofrequency
- Tattoos, body piercings or other metallic insertions in the skin to be treated.
- Pregnancy and implanted medical devices (ICD, Pacemaker, etc.).
- Some dermatologic conditions
- Some diseases, such as autoimmune, impaired collagen production, during radiation therapy, …
All contraindications will be discussed thoroughly during pre-treatment consultation.
The combination of radiofrequency treatment with other invasive or minimally invasive procedures provides an improved and cumulative result. Some of the treatments usually combined with RF are
- Face and neck liposuction
- Intense pulsed light and non ablative laser treatments
- Microdermabrasion and superficial chemical peels
- To maintain over time the results achieved with a facelift
Recommendations after radio frequency
- Most patients can resume normal activities immediately after the procedure.
- Patients should avoid using ice or anti-inflammatory medications as they might lower the healing response and block collagen stimulation.
- Sun protection is recommended.
Although being a safe procedure, improper use of the RF devices, too much energy or energy applied for too long, wrong technique with the electrodes and other factors might cause side effects or damage to the skin. Always choose an experienced and qualified physician working in a proper medical facility.
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Former paramedic, instructor and medical school student.
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