What is Lipedema?
This post includes a complete patient guide to the proper diagnosis of what is lipedema, its causes, symptoms, and treatment. So let’s get started then.
What is Lipedema- A Definition
Lipedema, also commonly known as lipoedema, is a medical condition characterized by the accumulation of excess fat in the lower body parts. It is a common yet under-recognized condition that leads to the build-up of adipose tissue (fat cells) in the lower legs and arms.
Note: Fat cells are the cells that specialize in storing energy as fat
It is a chronic condition that primarily involves calves, thighs, and buttocks. However, it can also affect the upper arms.
Lipedema can be mostly confused with lymphedema since they both sound similar. But both are different conditions.
As already mentioned, lipedema is a condition that causes fat accumulation or abnormal fat deposits in specific areas of the body. In contrast, lymphedema is a condition marked by the presence of excess fluid in soft tissues caused by a blockage in the lymphatic system (lymph vessels and lymph nodes).
Note: Lymphatic System is an organ system that is part of our circulatory and immune system made up of lymphatic vessels, lymph nodes, tissues.
Lipedema Patients – Who Are Most Likely To Be Affected?
Lipedema occurs mostly in females, with very few cases of development in men. It has been estimated to affect nearly 11% of adult females, and the possibility goes up to 39%.
So, the condition is often referred to occur in females exclusively.
What is Lipedema – An Overview
Now that you know the technical definition of what is lipedema. Let us know what is lipedema in detail.
Lipedema is a distinct condition yet can be misdiagnosed with obesity or lymphedema due to a similar fat deposition. However, if noticed properly, patients with lipedema can be distinguished well from the other two.
The associated symptoms of lipedema are different. Lipedema causes swelling, pain, and easy bruising. It may cause abnormal sensations in the tissues of the hips, buttocks, and legs.
The intensity of pain differs from patient to patient; it can go from none to severe. And the frequency also fluctuates, it may be constant in some patients, or it may be a come-and-go situation.
Lipedema begins mostly:
- During pregnancy
- Around the time of the first menstruation
- Later in life
Along with the physical symptoms of lipedema, it also has an impact on mental health. Affected individuals are often diagnosed with low self-esteem and feeling of hopelessness.
It is a chronic ailment having severe health implications. Fat deposition, developing an eating disorder, weight gain are the most obvious symptoms. However, it is a progressive condition, so the symptoms might change and worsen with time.
And in unfortunate cases, it may lead to advanced stages such as lipo lymphedema.
Well, now that you have enough details on what is lipedema. It is time to move a bit ahead and check out the causes, symptoms, correct diagnosis, and treatments.
For a more detailed overview of what is lipedema, click here.
1. Symptoms of Lipedema
Now that you know what is lipedema, you must learn about the symptoms as well.
I. Mostly affects the lower body:
Lipedema usually begins as excessive fat accumulates in the lower body parts while the upper body remains the same. It begins at the top of the crest of the ilium, the bones at the waist.
It starts from the upper legs. And is some cases, it also affects the arms (in about 30% of affected patients), mostly the upper arms.
In other cases of fat accumulation, such as obesity, the fat is evenly distributed. So one can identify whether it is normal obesity or lipedema.
II. Fat is abnormal and painful
Unlike other fat accumulation, lipedema fat or the affected areas of fat becomes very tender and bruise easily. The affected limbs may also hurt for no specific reason.
Patients usually develop painful symptoms since it is an abnormal accumulation. In other cases of fat accumulation, such as obesity, the fat is evenly distributed.
III. Leg swelling
Patients with lipedema can have swollen legs at all times. Swelling usually occurs from down the hips up to the ankles. However, since the feet are not affected, so there is no swelling in the feet.
Legs mostly appear column-like. Swelling occurs due to abnormal fluid circulation, making the blood vessels fragile and leaky.
IV. Disproportionate weight gain
When affected by lipedema, patients start to gain weight; however, it is disproportionate. The weight gain is not evenly divided across the body.
V. Development of varicose veins
Many patients with lipedema may develop a vein disease such as varicose veins, vascular disease, or spider veins.
2. Causes of Lipedema
So far, we know what lipedema is and what its symptoms are. After this, it is time to know what causes lipedema in the first place.
The underlying cause of this chronic disease remains unknown. The exact incidence of what causes lipedema in the first place remains a mystery. However, various doctors suspect female hormones to play a major role.
As lipedema usually begins by puberty, after pregnancy, during menopause, or any other event that triggers hormonal changes, it implies that the cause of lipedema is somewhere connected to hormones.
And it is also already known that female hormones do play a role in normal fat accumulation.
Scientists also believe that genes play a role too since patients with the same family history are often found.
Although now there are enough records and information on what is lipedema, still the underlying cause is not fully known.
As already mentioned before, lipedema is a progressive condition. So the symptoms can change as the disease progression takes place, and it progresses in 3 stages.
Let us now talk about the 3 stages of lipedema, as by now you are well aware of what is lipedema.
I. Stage I Lipedema
This is the early stage of lipedema, which is why appearance alone can not distinguish between lipedema and healthy weight.
But patients develop other symptoms and characteristics that can be effectively used.
Excess fat in legs:
Fat accumulates disproportionately to the upper body, just in the leg areas. As a result, weight loss doesn’t have any effects on the affected areas. The fat affects both legs equally.
Fat tissue may also appear above or below the knees, making their normal shape hard to notice.
Skin is healthy at this stage, and there is no discoloration.
Fat is painful with or without pressure:
At this stage, the fat deposits may feel painful either spontaneously or when pressure is applied. This pain doesn’t respond much to pain medications.
Patients may develop some temporary swelling in the feet or ankles. It eventually tends to disappear.
No signs of pitting:
This is a swelling test. If by applying thumb pressure, it leaves an indenture which then gradually fills in and disappears, it indicates that the swelling is fluid in nature rather than the accumulated fat.
Stage II Lipedema
Stage I lipedema shifts to stage II when there has been no proper treatment. This stage almost has the same symptoms as stage I, with the following exceptions.
Skin seems uneven:
The skin appears to be uneven, discolored, with a textured look.
Lumps of fats develop:
In the affected areas, fist-sized lumps may begin to develop.
Fatty nodes develop:
Instead of the fats having a smooth texture, fatty nodules begin to develop.
Stage III Lipedema
This is the last stage of progression, also known as late-stage lipedema or secondary lymphedema. Patients do not easily progress to this stage, and it takes many years to develop.
Hardened skin with discoloration:
At this stage, the skin becomes thick and hardened, and there is also discoloration of the skin.
Lymphedema is positive:
Ankles and feet begin to swell, and the swelling doesn’t go away. Stemmer’s sign shows positive, which means skin can be pinched and lift, and the flesh on top feels solid.
3. Diagnosis: How is Lipedema Diagnosed?
Despite medical reports and data collected for so many years, yet till today, there are no fixed diagnostic tests to diagnose lipedema. There are still many challenges faced concerning the proper diagnosis of lipedema, even when the majority is aware of what is lipedema.
Therefore, at times it is often misdiagnosed as Dercum’s disease, obesity, or chronic venous insufficiency. Even in cases of swelling of the legs, most doctors misjudge it with liver disease or kidney failure.
At present, a physical examination with a combined examination of the patient’s family history is effective.
Is Self-Diagnosis Effective?
A self-diagnosis can never be as effective as a formal diagnosis done by a physician. However, at the initial stage, you can check for your symptoms if you know them properly.
Here’s how you can perform a self-diagnosis:
First off, check for family history-
Try to find out if anyone in your immediate family has ever been diagnosed with the condition.
Learn about the different stages and associated symptoms of the condition-
Get yourself familiar with the various symptoms and stages of the condition.
Investigate your symptoms thoroughly
Note down your symptoms and then compare them with the symptoms of the condition. It can be difficult to do a proper assessment without experience.
Take your time, and focus on each symptom properly.
Make a timeline of your symptoms
When did you first begin noticing your symptoms? Did you feel any change over time? Do you have any other symptom that doesn’t match with the classic symptoms of lipedema?
Note everything down, and make a proper timeline.
Rule in or rule out all possibilities
Once you have made a timeline, then you can rule out or rule in all the possibilities of the condition.
4. Treatment: How is Lipedema Treated?
After an accurate diagnosis of lipedema, treatment can be started. But, there are no proven medications for the condition.
However, an effective treatment known as CDT (complex decongestive therapy) is currently used. CDT is a program that includes different treatment approaches such as compression therapy, exercise, self-care, manual lymphatic drainage, liposuction.
We shall discuss each approach for treating lipedema in detail below:
For compression, stretch bandages or compression garments are used. They help increase tissue pressure in the swollen legs, which reduces the odds of fluids building back up.
The garment option includes spandex shorts, knee-high socks, pantyhose, leggings, and thigh-high stockings.
Note: Leggings must be avoided if the patient suffers from swelling in the feet.
Initially, patients must start with lighter compressions ranging within 15-20 mmHg and gradually take up to tighter compressions (20-30mmHg).
Some other patients might also consider using a pneumatic compression pump. It is a machine with attached inflatable sleeves for the legs that gently massages the legs to get the flow of lymph in the right direction.
Liposuction is a surgical procedure used in plastic surgery that removes fat and reshapes specific areas of the body. Lipedema patients can go for liposuction for better and fast results. This procedure appears to be effective for many patients.
Depending on the amount of fat accumulated, several sessions might be needed. And it is better to seek out a plastic surgeon before choosing liposuction for treating lipedema.
Low impact exercise might not help lose weight, but it helps to reduce the fluid build-up. It also boosts mobility and improves your leg movements.
Manual Lymphatic Drainage:
MLD is a massage technique that uses gentle skin stretching massages and rhythmic pumping movements to help stimulate the movement of lymphatic fluid out of the affected areas and drain into the venous system.
This method helps reduce the pain and prevent developing fibrosis.
Taking proper care of your skin and nails helps reduce the chances of wounds and infection when there’s swelling.
So these are the approaches of complex decongestive therapy. Other effective measures are:
Patients suffering from lipedema might get beneficial results from an anti-inflammatory diet.
Always go for homemade, whole food options and avoid processed foods, saturated fats, and meats. Include more vegetables and fruits in your diet.
Managing your weight is an effective measure for preventing disease progression.
Patients suffering from lipedema might find it difficult to stay positive and hopeful; in such cases, patients are advised to get emotional support and help the body deal with the condition.
Final Words: What is lipedema and what to do?
Lipedema is a common condition associated with various symptoms. So if you ever find yourself suffering from any similar symptom, contact a doctor at the earliest. Also, try looking for some online resource about the condition; it will be helpful.
I hope this article on what is lipedema, its causes, symptoms, and treatments have provided you with enough information on the condition. So that next time you come across the question of what is lipedema, you already have an answer.
However, if you want to know more about lipedema and how it exactly affects your system, you might check out the Rare Diseases Information Center website.
Read more from us on our website.
While at times contributed by guest authors, our content is medically reviewed periodically by professionals for accuracy and relevance. We pride ourselves on our high-quality content and strive towards offering expertise while being authoritative. Our reviewers include doctors, nurses, mental health professionals, and even medical students.
Do note that any information found on the site does not constitute legal or medical advice. Should you face health issues, please visit your doctor to get yourself diagnosed. Icy Health offers expert opinions and advice for informational purposes only. This is not a substitute for professional medical advice.