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What's the difference between reconstructive and cosmetic procedures?


The term "plastic surgery" originates from the Greek word "plastikos," which means to mold or shape. The field of Plastic Surgery can be broken down into two main categories – reconstructive procedures and cosmetic procedures. Both are generally considered sub-specialties of plastic surgery.

Reconstructive plastic surgery

Reconstructive surgery is performed to restore function and normal appearance, and correct deformities created by birth defects, trauma or medical conditions including cancer. Examples include cleft lip and palate repair, breast reconstruction following a lumpectomy or mastectomy for breast cancer, and reconstructive surgery after burn injuries. Typically, reconstructive surgery is considered medically necessary and is covered by most health insurance plans.

Cosmetic plastic surgery

Cosmetic surgery is performed to enhance overall cosmetic appearance by reshaping and adjusting normal anatomy to make it visually more appealing. Unlike reconstructive surgery, cosmetic surgery is not considered medically necessary. Breast augmentation, breast lift, liposuction, abdominoplasty (tummy tuck) and facelift are popular examples of cosmetic surgery procedures.

How are they similar?

In reality, there is often significant overlap between reconstructive and cosmetic plastic surgery since they share many of the same underlying surgical principles. No matter the type of plastic surgery that is being performed, the end goal should always include maximizing the cosmetic result as much as possible. Regardless of the plastic surgery procedure being planned, it is very important for patients to discuss the anticipated cosmetic result with their surgeon ahead of time to ensure appropriate expectations are met.

The lines between reconstructive and cosmetic surgery are further blurred when it comes to insurance coverage. Certain conditions can be deemed either "reconstructive" or "cosmetic" depending on the patient's specific situation. A perfect example is rhinoplasty (nose surgery) which is often performed to enhance the appearance of the nose but may also be required to restore normal nasal breathing and normal appearance after a bad nasal fracture.

Correct board certification matters

Regardless of the type of plastic surgery, patients should do their homework and ensure their surgeon is board-certified by the American Board of Plastic Surgery.

In the U.S., a physician advertising as a "cosmetic surgeon" is not required to complete formal plastic surgery training in an accredited program. That physician may actually have trained in any medical specialty and now wishes to perform cosmetic surgery. Even for procedures like breast augmentation, the training these individuals have undergone can include as little as a weekend course.

By selecting a plastic surgeon who is certified by the American Board of Plastic Surgery, you can rest assured your surgeon has completed the necessary training and has the experience and expertise needed to perform your surgery safely.

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