A fat-freezing treatment called CoolSculpting is gaining popularity, no doubt, but is it worth the price tag—and the pain?

By Rachel Jacoby Zoldan

You may think CoolSculpting (the non-invasive procedure that freezes fat cells and supposedly has no recovery time) sounds too good to be true. No sit-ups? No planks? A slimmer stomach just a few weeks later?

Here's the gist: Also known generically as cryolipolysis, CoolSculpting is performed by doctors and aestheticians. By freezing fat, the process naturally eliminates dead, frozen fat cells throughout your body. You can see results in just a few weeks-though sometimes it takes up to three months.

My stomach has always been my trouble area. I'm also willing to try almost anything once, so when I was given the opportunity to test the treatment out, I figured I'd give it a shot. As an avid runner with a penchant for pizza, I figured I had nothing to lose. Since CoolSculpting promised "no downtime," I could get right back to training for the back-to-back 10K and half-marathon I had on the calendar about eight weeks later. (Signing up for your own race? Try our 12-Week Half Marathon Training Plan.) I wouldn't need to take any time off work either-and would hopefully soon be gifted with a firmer six-pack. Win-win, right?

So I crept into a sleek Tribeca medispa on a quiet Saturday morning. But with no one else in the waiting room, I suddenly felt alone-and nervous. "As a reporter, I should have done more research on this before agreeing to it," I thought to myself.

I realized I had no idea what I was getting into-not my typical, OCD-like way of handling anything related to my health or body.

The Assessment

A technician whisked me into a sterile room and gave me a glorified paper bra and set of panties to put on instead of my own. (They were really glam.)

After I changed, she instructed me to stand in the corner under a few harsh lights so she could snap a few "before photos" and figure out which parts of my stomach were best for the treatment.

Grabbing my gut-which I like to think I work on somewhat as a regular exerciser!-my technician happily exclaimed, "Oh, you're going to be a great candidate. This roll is the perfect type of fat for CoolSculpting."

Not quite something you're excited to hear while someone holds onto your stomach roll.

I've struggled with my body image my whole life, but I tried to agree with her sentiment and nodded. But that was before she pulled out the marker (yes, a marker). Sorority-style, she took some sort of branded ruler to my belly and drew lines to mimic where my fat peaks.

OK, maybe I should have expected that at a fat-freezing treatment. What I wasn't expecting: to feel as crushed by her assessment of my stomach as I did.

We picked my lower abs and I hopped in the chair, not quite ready for what was next.

The Procedure

The technician gave me the rundown: She'd place a towel dripping with a freezing agent on the drawn-upon roll of fat. This would then be clamped down on by the CoolSculpting device. The device hums for an hour, killing fat cells, and I'd be able to watch Netflix (score). Then, she'd come back in, spend two minutes rubbing my fat back out, and we'd repeat on the other side. All-in-all, this would total to two hours time. A bit faster than a gazillion crunches, right?

I was already feeling defeated from my assessment, but at her description of the procedure, I became straight-up terrified. She explained the clamping of your stomach can feel like someone is taking your breath away, but it was so much worse than that. The sharp pain of a huge machine sucking your stomach (imagine a vacuum) is kind of indescribable in the worst possible way.

Thankfully, you go completely numb after about 10 minutes (which is when I turned on an episode of SVU). The rest of the hour is a blur of Mariska, chilly temps, and intermittent pain. I watched the countdown clock second by second on the CoolSculpting machine.

As for that two-minute massage? Well, after the hour, your once roly-poly roll of fat has condensed into what feels and looks like a hard stick of butter. The technician returned to spend what were the 120 most painful seconds of my life rubbing my right lower abdomen. This, she explained, would help minimize swelling and aid in the lymphatic drainage of the now-dead fat cells. (So much for any future cozy connotation with the word "massage.") With tears streaming down my face, I told her the pain was too great. I'd have to come back another day to do the other side, I told her. (By the way, this is The Best Tool for a Deeper Self-Massage.)

The Side Effects

Shaky and emotionally drained, I returned to my apartment, where I had laid out my running clothes, thinking I'd bounce right back and be OK to jog. When I walked in the door, my husband asked how it went, and I pulled my shirt up to show him massive bruises the size of grapefruits on my right side.

He didn't say much-I think he was in complete shock-but I gasped, realizing just how much pain I was in. Despite bruising and swelling being two of the more common side effects, I didn't realize just how beat up I'd be. Was this really worth it for the promise of a "flat belly"?

Even more: Another possible side effect of CoolSculpting is lingering, tingling nerve pain. But you can't take a handful of Advil for it: CoolSculpting causes an inflammatory response in the body, and any ibuprofen stifles that desired inflammatory response. The nerve pain, which can last up to six weeks, was random, stabby, and anxiety-inducing.

Thankfully, the pain and bruising subsided after about three weeks. And when I went back for my left side (where I learned my fat peaked far less, hallelujah), I didn't experience the same post-treatment nerve pain. I did have another set of major bruises, though. Sigh.

My Takeaway

CoolSculpting purports itself as non-invasive treatment with no downtime. The truth? I couldn't run, do yoga, or strength train for two weeks-and I've never felt my personal space more invaded than during the treatment. I was hyper-aware of my stomach fat and somehow felt more self-conscious than ever. The inflammatory response also causes a bit of swelling in the first week or two, so your stomach actually gets bigger before it gets smaller.

Which brings me to the results: the slimmer stomach I was after. Did I get it? Three months later, I'll admit it: My stomach is seriously flatter. My once-familiar round belly was more akin to a washboard, and muscle cuts were emerging near my more now-pronounced hipbones. (The spa never followed up to take after photos, so I never got the exact deets of how many inches I lost.)

Two points worth adding: The weeks off the streets and out of the yoga studio (due to the pain of the treatment) don't help anyone's fitness goals. Plus, a family vacation at the three-month mark (when the best results from CoolSculpting are seen) made my abs far less washboard-y. The familiar old curvature of my belly reappeared. And despite many sweaty runs, planks, and downward dogs, I couldn't get my stomach as flat it had been before that trip.

So yes, in my experience, CoolSculpting works, but only if you're really strict with your diet and exercise regimen, which I was, for the most part. And remember, just a few weeks off completely derailed project six-pack.

Considering how badly the procedure made me feel about myself, I'm also not sure I'd ever do it again. Despite my slightly flatter stomach, I'd tell you to skip spending thousands of dollars for CoolSculpting and spend some extra time on your ab routines (like this 4-week plan for flat abs) instead.

No one needs their fat peaks highlighted with Sharpies. Ever.

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May 29, 2018
Thank you for this article and sorry for your experience. I’ve been waiting on a good honest review of cool sculpting because I wanted to try it myself but didn’t have the funds. You really helped me see the light of things and there really isn’t a quick fix. I have been pregnant five times with 3 kids now and have a stretched out large abdomen. I guess I’ll have to realize that good old fashioned diet and exercise is the key.
May 21, 2018
Its funny if you to "Self" site to read reviews on cool sculpting , they are all so positive, but everyone that writes the reviews works for a cool sculpting clinic. I appreciate hearing a real life example. It reminds me of taking phentermine - its a quick fix the first time, but not a long term solution. Appreciate the article, just wish this website had last ads
May 7, 2018
Good to hear the real scoop about coolsculpting. For sure it's not for me.
April 26, 2018
I agree with the author's assessment of the experience. I was in a huge amount of pain for my abdomen and the massage brought tears to my eyes. My abdomen is swollen and numb after 4 days and I can barely graze that area with my fingers. Incredibly sensitive. My inner thighs are recovering much more quickly with little swelling and numbness. I think before anyone calls someone a diva, we need to remember that our bodies are different and sensitive to pain at different levels. I can tell everyone that the abdomen pain was enough to the point where I will never do it again.
March 17, 2018
Meredith, I'm not going to mince any words here. You must be a little bit of a diva. I had cool sculpting done and its one of the best decisions I've made. I walked out of the doctor's office with little pain and have been thrilled ever since. I was riding horses and running the next day. My muffin top is gone and I look and feel great. You shouldn't discourage others because one thing I've learned is that most women are tough. A little bit of pain was worth every bit of it. If you're thinking of doing it-do it! You won't regret it.
February 21, 2018
Thanks for the great info. I will Not be doing the coolsculpting.
February 17, 2018
My husband and I also had Cool Sculpting. It was everything the author described and yielded absolutely no results. I had numbness at each of the treated sites for 3 months. It was a huge waste of money.
December 31, 2017
I had this done a while back. NEVER saw any difference. It was a total waste of money for me.
November 3, 2017
Wow...memberdiscussio- you must have a very low tolerance for pain. I had it done today...it was uncomfortable, yes, I agree...that’s about it. . I wouldnt describe it as ‘unbearable’....spend some time in ‘boot camp’ and come back and tell me what is ‘unbearable’....or better yet, spend some time in the Middle East.....