Lipedema or lipoedema is a chronic disorder of adipose tissue and lymphatic vessel dysfunction generally affecting the legs, which causes the legs and sometimes the arms to accumulate distinct patterns of fatty tissue.
Signs and symptoms
Patients tend to gain weight in lipedematous areas and lose it in non-lipedematous areas, though there are cases where weight loss has resulted in improvement of the condition. Obese lipedema patients who undergo bariatric surgery lose fat primarily from the waist up. While lipedema presents itself in various ways, diagnosis is possible as early as pre-puberty when inner thigh pads present and at any age when fat gathers and drapes at knees.
Symptoms of lipdemia include disproportionately large, column-like legs, legs unusually large to the knees, disproportinate hips, stomach or buttocks. As lipedema progresses, patients become increasingly heavy in the lower body. The additional, expanding fat cells interfere with the pathways of lymphatic vessels, and patients can develop secondary lymphedema, a condition known as lipo-lymphedema. Many lipedema patients cannot tolerate the compression garments associated with conventional lymphedema treatment because the underlying lipedematous fat is very painful, and those patients therefore are at risk for the side effects of uncontrolled lymphedema, including recurring blood infections and fibrosis. If not kept in check through a healthy lifestyle, lipo-lymphedema can worsen, and patients will become progressively less mobile.
The cause is unknown. There are likely genetically inherited risk factors as it is more likely to occur in the first and second degree relatives of affected individuals. It appears to be related to estrogen and progesterone hormonal influences as it occurs exclusively post puberty and largely in females. There is a strong inflammation component; some patients self-report an improvement of symptoms by moving to anti-inflammatory diets and/or eliminating foods that exacerbate inflammation.
Lipedema usually is triggered at puberty, but can trigger or worsen during or after pregnancy, at peri-menopause, and following gynecological surgery, i.e., surgery of the uterus, ovaries, or fallopian tubes or any surgery with general anesthesia. Lipedema can also be triggered by an extremely stressful situation such as a death in the family or a divorce because cortisol levels increase, causing an inflammation cascade, almost always misdiagnosed as simple weight gain.
Lipedema is commonly misdiagnosed. At this time, only Germany and The Netherlands have standardized ways of diagnosing lipedema. The US does not currently have a standardized diagnosis protocol, and therefore the diagnosis is typically made clinically via physical inspection (palpating the adipose tissue). Some trained clinicians and therapists can feel the physical differences in the adipose tissue, characterized as nodules with "beans in a bag" feeling. When the tissue has excess fluid the nodules are no longer easily palpable. Testing of the major components of the lymphatic system can be done through tools such as lymphoscintigraphy, but lack of noticeable lymphatic impairment does not indicate lipedema is not present, only that the major lymphatics are not (yet) affected.
|Lipedema||Lipo-lymphedema||Lymphedema||Obesity||Venous Insufficiency/Venous Stasis|
|Symptoms:||Fat deposits / swelling in legs and/or arms NOT hands/feet||Fat deposits / swelling widespread in legs/arms/torso||Fat deposits / swelling in one limb including hands/feet||Fat deposits
|Swelling near ankles; brownish discoloration of lower legs (hemosiderin deposits). Minimal swelling possible.|
|Onset:||Around hormonal shifts (puberty, pregnancy, menopause)||Around hormonal shifts||After surgery that affects lymphatic system, or at birth||Any age||Around onset of obesity, diabetes, pregnancy, hypertension|
|Effects of Diet:||Restricting calories ineffective||Restricting calories ineffective||Restricting calories ineffective||Diets and weight loss strategies may be effective||No relation to caloric intake|
|Presence of Edema:||Non-pitting edema||Lots of edema; some pitting; some fibrosis||Pitting edema||No edema||Often edema, but can also occur without edema in earlier stages|
|Presence of Stemmer Sign:||Stemmer's Sign negative||Stemmer's Sign positive||Stemmer's Sign positive||Stemmer's Sign negative||Stemmer's sign may or may not be present in Lymphedema/Lipolymphedema|
|Presence of Pain:||Pain in affected areas likely||Pain in affected areas||No pain initially||No pain||Pain is likely|
|Affected Population:||Best estimate is 11% adult women (study done in Germany)||Unknown; best estimate is a few percent of adult women||Low||>=30% of US adults||>30% of US adults|
|Presence of Cellulitis:||No history of cellulitis||Likely history of cellulitis||Possible history of cellulitis||Often itching +/- discoloration mistaken for cellulitis|
|Family History:||Family history likely||Family history of lipedema likely||Family history not likely unless primary lymphedema||Family history likely||Very likely family history|
Lymphedema is usually asymmetrical and can be either acquired (through surgery, trauma or infection damaging the lymphatic system) or congenital (hereditary changes in the lymphatic system). However, symmetrical enlargement of both lower limbs, from waist to ankles (i.e. gynoid fat) is a hallmark of lipedema. As the swelling continues and spreads from lower extremities to other parts of the body, the swelling is likely caused by slower lymphatic flow and changes in the lymphatic vessel structure caused by pressure in the lipedematous limbs. This is known as lipo-lymphedema. Lipo-lymphedema may also develop in combination with chronic venous insufficiency and other vascular disorders.
Lipedema can be underdiagnosed due the difficulty in differentiating it from other edemas and obesity. Some tools including tables and a flow chart that can be used to diagnose lipedema and other edemas can be found in the article "Edema: Diagnosis and Management." (3)
Lipedema / Dercum’s Disease Differentiation These conditions may co-exist. Dercum’s Disease is characterized by painful lipomas around the body. CITATION: http://fatdisorders.org/fat-disorders/diagram
There is currently no known way to prevent lipedema. Some treatments, both conservative and surgical, may help some people postpone or prevent symptom worsening sometimes. If lipedema is diagnosed early, which currently is very rare, it is possible to prevent a significant expansion of lipedematous fat cells and to alert patients to their heightened risk factors so they can take appropriate action.
There is no consensus on a uniform treatment plan. Treatments range from mild lifestyle changes, to medications and supplements, to surgical.
Medical treatment is designed primarily to address the secondary lymphedema part of the lipedema patient's condition. This treatment includes a course of manual lymphatic drainage and bandaging by a lymphedema therapist, followed by the wearing of custom-fitted compression garments or devices — usually stockings, and sometimes biker shorts and/or arm compression. Compression prevents recurrence of lymphedema, and in some lipedema patients can reduce the pain of lipedematous fat. There is currently no known uniform medical procedure to cure lipedema. It is, however, successfully managed through a variety of consistently applied techniques to improve the health of the legs and prevent the condition from returning in more difficult to manage levels. Management involves reducing dietary sodium intake, frequent, gentle exercise to promote circulation in the legs, such as rebound exercise, and treatments typical for lymphedema treatment.
Conversely, a growing number of women claim to have succeeded in reversing lipedema through elimination diets, low impact exercise, and an herbal protocol that addresses inflammation of the legs rather than edema of the legs. This group claims to eliminate inflammatory pain in legs by
- changing food choices;
- and, modulating the tumor necrosis factor (TNF) antagonists or TNF blockers in the adipose tissue.
This movement is gaining recognition in European and Australian medical circles.
Though there is debate about the merits of surgical intervention, there are surgeons in USA, Germany, the Netherlands and the U.K. achieving success with lymphatic-sparing gentle water-jet-assisted liposuction. This is different from conventional liposuction, and is usually performed with tumescent local anesthesia; one of its merits is that WAL liposuction preserves the integrity of the lymphatic system while removing lipedematous adipose tissue.
It should be remembered that lipedema is a childhood disease that progresses throughout adulthood. Early diagnosis makes possible the best treatment.
There is no uniform prognosis across all patients. Some patients have success managing the symptoms with conservative and/or surgical treatments. Some patients progress to lipo-lymphedema, a condition where lipedema and lipo-lymphedema both occur. Some patients develop Dercum's disease.
Complications include depression, anxiety, and pain.
Estimates of the incidence of lipedema vary widely, and range as high as 11% of the post-pubertal female population, with estimates of 17 million women in the US, and 370 million women worldwide affected."11% of adult women" is often cited but that is unsubstantiated at this time. The "11% of adult women" comes from a small, unpublished study done in Germany at the Foeldi Clinic in 2006. It has been reported that it occurs in multiple races including Caucasian, African American and people from India, but likely is less represented in non-Indiad Asian races.
Although first identified in the United States, at the Mayo Clinic in 1940, lipedema is barely known in that country – to physicians or to the patients who have the disease. Lipedema often is confused with obesity, and a significant number of patients currently diagnosed as obese are believed to have lipedema, either instead of or in addition to obesity.
The word lipedema has multiple spellings. Lipedema is the American spelling, while lipoedema is used in Britain and Europe. Lipodema is also used occasionally.
In recent years growing awareness of lipedema has come from internet sources. Conferences in the Netherlands, Germany, England and the USA have convened, in part initiated by groups initially only organized through social media.
In 2008, the Fat Disorders Research Society, Inc. was formed to aid lipedema awareness and research, and in 2009 achieved US non-profit 501(c)(3) status. They held conferences in 2010, 2011, and 2014.
In 2012, Lipese, LLC published the first co-authored English lipedema handbook entitled: Lipedema: Help, Hope, and Healing written by Maggie McCarey, USA, and Tatjana van der Krabben, the Netherlands,
In November 2012 the UK's Health service the NHS first listed lipedema as the abnormal build-up of fat cells in the legs, thighs and buttocks. This national acceptance of lipedema is due largely to The Lymphoedema Support Network and the administrators and members of Lipoedema Ladies who are an important part of the grassroots movement. The NHS listed the only treatment that appears to be effective for lipedema is a procedure called tumescent liposuction which is now routinely performed in the Netherlands and Germany.
In June 2015, the Fat Disorders Research Society was granted member organization status to NORD, The National Organization for Rare Disorders, representing lipedema and related conditions such as Dercum's Disease.
- Adiposis dolorosa
- Dercum's disease
- List of Books Discussing Lipedema
- List of Papers Discussing Lipedema
- Educational Videos
- Herbst, Karen L (2012). "Rare adipose disorders (RADs) masquerading as obesity". Acta Pharmacologica Sinica 33 (2): 155–172. doi:10.1038/aps.2011.153. ISSN 1671-4083.
- "Lipedema photos and explanation". Archived from the original on 2003-07-14.
- Fat Disorders Research Society Lipedema Description
- Todd, Marie, Lipoedema: presentation and management. Chronic Oedema, 2010; 10-16
- Fife CE, Maus EA, Carter MJ, 2010 Lipedema: A Frequently Misdiagnoed and Misunderstood Fatty Deposition Syndrome. ADV SKIN WOUND CARE 2010;23:81-92; quiz 93-4. reported "However, in an unpublished epidemiological study conducted in 2001, Foeldi and Foeldi  claimed that lipedema is present in 11% of the female population".  corresponds to "Foeldi E, Foeldi M. Lipedema. In: Foeldi M, Foeldi E, eds. Foeldi’s Textbook of Lymphology. 2nd ed. Munich, Germany: Elsevier; 2006:417-2
- Trayes KP, Studdiford JS, Pickle S, Tully AS “Edema: Diagnosis and Management” Am Fam Physician 2013:88(2):102-110 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23939641
- Herbst, Karen L “Rare adipose disorders (RADs) masquerading as obesity” Acta Pharmacol Sin. 2012 Feb;33(2):155-72. doi: 10.1038/aps.2011.153. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22301856
- Rapprich, Stefan; Dingler, Anne; Podda, Maurizio (January 2011). "Liposuction is an effective treatment for lipedema – results of a study with 25 patients". JDDG: Journal der Deutschen Dermatologischen Gesellschaft 9 (1): 33–40. doi:10.1111/j.1610-0387.2010.07504.x.
- Foldi, Ethel; Foldi, Michael (May 14, 2012). Földi's Textbook of Lymphology: for Physicians and Lymphedema Therapists (3 ed.). Urban & Fischer. p. 418. ISBN 978-0723436461.
- Allen E, Hines EA Lipedema of the legs: a syndrome characteried by fat legs and orthostatic edema. Proc. Staff Meet. Mayo Clin. 1940; 15184-187.
- Wold LE, Hines EA Allen EV. Lipedema of the legs: a syndrome characterized by fat legs and edema. Ann. Intern. Med. 1951; 34(5): 1243-1250. doi:10.7326/0003-4819-34-5-1243.
- Cornley ME. Fatter Through Lipids or Water: Lipohyperpalsia Dolorosa Versus Lymphedema. Am. Journal of Cosmetic Surg. 2014; 31: 189-195.