And even nearly identical noses will look different on different people, Frankel said. "Everything else about the face structure and the person could be different -- the skin color, eyes, height -- there is no translation between some Latina celebrity's nose and some Irish 40-year-old's nose."
Still, even with the computer imaging, the nose is a complex structure. Rhinoplasty, plastic surgeons say, is the most difficult procedure they do.
Not only does the nose have important functions (breathing, smelling) to maintain, it's front and center on the face. During healing, wounds contract, skin can tighten, and scarring can weaken cartilage, which can distort what the surgeon intended, Frankel noted.
"When you throw into the mix that it's subjective -- what one person thinks is a pretty nose another may not -- then that adds to the difficulty," Frankel said.
In the study, Frankel and his colleagues sent photos of 38 rhinoplasty patients six months after surgery along with their pre-operative computer images to a panel of plastic surgeons. They asked the surgeons to rate how closely the computer image and the "after" surgery photo of the real nose matched.
On a five-point scale, the surgeons on the panel ranked the mean overall accuracy of the computer-generated image a 2.98, meaning they considered the computer image "moderately accurate," according to the study.
The researchers also asked patients to assess their happiness with their new nose and the accuracy of the computer image.
Patients had a less discerning eye. Of the 11 who responded, 81 percent rated their happiness a 4 or 5 out of 5. They rated the accuracy of the image a 3.4 out of 5.
Patients who described themselves as satisfied with the surgery also tended to consider their computer image more accurate than patients who were less satisfied.
"In the patient's eye, the images were even more
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