Feeling uncomfortable in your own skin can significantly decrease your quality of life. One condition that can cause discomfort and disfigurement, particularly of the lower body, is lipedema. Here’s what you need to know about lipedema and what to do if you suspect you may be experiencing signs and symptoms of this medical condition.

What Is Lipedema?

Lipedema is a condition characterized by abnormal fat distribution in certain parts of the body, particularly the lower body. You may have heard the term “lipedema legs.” This refers to the fact that abnormal fat cell buildup is most likely to occur in the legs but can also occur in the upper arms. This sets lipedema apart from obesity, a condition in which fat buildup is more generally distributed, particularly in the torso.

Compared to obesity, lipedema is not as responsive to lifestyle changes such as diet and exercise. Lipedema can also be particularly painful, with fat cell buildup causing inflamed lumps and bumps under the skin’s surface.

Who Is More Likely to Get Lipedema?

Medical scientists are unclear about the root cause of lipedema. However, certain factors are more highly associated with lipedema. These include:

  • Being female
  • Having a family history of lipedema
  • Having a body mass index (BMI) over 35

Researchers have also noted that hormones may play a role in the development of lipedema, as women are more likely to develop the condition during times of hormonal fluctuations, such as during puberty, pregnancy and menopause.

Types of Lipedema

There are five types of lipedema, and each type is based on where abnormal fat buildup occurs. It is possible to possess more than one type of lipedema. According to the Cleveland Clinic, lipedema types include:

  • Type 1: abnormal fat buildup accumulates between the belly button and hips
  • Type 2: abnormal fat buildup accumulates between the pelvis and knees (the upper legs)
  • Type 3: abnormal fat buildup accumulates between the pelvis and ankles (the entire legs)
  • Type 4: abnormal fat buildup accumulates between the shoulders and wrists
  • Type 5: abnormal fat buildup accumulates between the knees and ankles (the lower legs)

One of the classic characteristics of lipedema is that this fat buildup is symmetrical, meaning that it happens on both sides of the body. The hands and feet are spared, meaning that abnormal fat cells do not accumulate in these places.

Early Signs and Symptoms of Lipedema

Lipedema may start with small, irregular areas of fat buildup under the surface of your skin. Other lipedema symptoms can include:

  • Disproportionate fat buildup in the buttocks, legs or arms compared to the rest of the body
  • Easy bruising and tenderness in the areas of fat buildup
  • Feeling heaviness or achiness in the legs
  • Swelling in the legs
  • Feeling excessively sleepy or tired

How Lipedema Progresses in Patients

Unfortunately, lipedema tends to progress from earlier stages to later stages. These stages include:

  • Stage 1: A layer of abnormal fat cells starts to build up underneath the skin’s surface. The skin still feels and appears smooth. This is known as early lipedema.
  • Stage 2: The irregular fat deposits under the skin’s surface become more visible, and they can be felt more easily. This is known as mid-stage lipedema.
  • Stage 3: Fat accumulations under the skin’s surface are more significant and obvious. This is known as advanced lipedema.

Throughout each stage, symptoms of pain and tenderness become more pronounced, and it’s common for people with advanced lipedema to develop secondary concerns, such as problems walking, joint pain and lymphedema (blockage of the lymphatic pathways).

Differences Between Lipedema and Lymphedema

It can be hard to differentiate between lipedema and lymphedema, as they are similar-sounding conditions that both tend to affect the lower body and lead to similar symptoms. Both conditions can cause leg swelling, leg heaviness and discomfort.

However, lipedema is an abnormal buildup of fat cells beneath the skin’s surface, whereas lymphedema refers to blockage of the lymphatic pathways. The two conditions can be interrelated because if fat buildup from lipedema becomes pronounced, it can put pressure on the lymphatic system and cause secondary lymphedema.

Treatment Options for Lipedema

While there is no cure for lipedema, many lipedema treatment options are available. These include:

  • Compression stockings
  • Moisturizers
  • Diet and exercise modifications
  • Oral medications to help reduce inflammation and swelling
  • Lymphatic drainage massage
  • Lipedema surgery, such as liposuction procedures

If you’re considering treatment options for lipedema, it’s essential to consult a skilled medical provider to understand which option is best for you.

How to Learn More About Lipedema

Lipedema and lymphedema can be challenging to differentiate between, especially in the early stages. If you’re experiencing leg swelling or discomfort, it’s important to consult a medical provider to get an appropriate diagnosis and start on a treatment plan. To learn more, contact the team of highly skilled providers at The Vein Institute of Hunterdon today.

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