Lipedema is a disorder characterized by symmetric enlargement of the legs due to deposits of fat beneath the skin. Affecting mostly women, lipedema is a lymphatic disease thought to impact as many as 17 million people in America.
While the disorder was originally described in 1940, lipedema remains under-recognized and underdiagnosed in the United States.
The defining features of lipedema are symmetrical and disproportionate deposition of subcutaneous adipose tissue in the lower extremities, pain and tenderness in the affected areas, along with dependent edema and vascular fragility.
While there are several identified distributions of associated lower extremity adiposis, the proximal legs (buttocks and hips) are nearly always involved (Figure 1), and regardless of the distal extent of involvement, lipedema never involves the feet except in the most advanced cases when lymphedema has developed.
As a result, an “ankle cuff” (Figure 2) is frequently seen at the junction of affected and unaffected tissue.
Physical examination will also typically reveal a granular or nodular texture of the enlarged subcutis (the tissue beneath the skin) similar to a bag of round peas or perhaps grains of sand.
Additionally, the patient will experience tenderness in their lower extremities. Furthermore, the overlying skin will often look splotchy with brown or purple spots with possibly broken capillaries. Lipedema patients often find they bruise easily.
Individuals with lipedema are frequently diagnosed with simple obesity and advised by their doctor to merely lose weight. However, a universal finding among lipedema patients is that even with an extensive effort at weight loss (often including bariatric surgery) they are unsuccessful.
Oftentimes these individuals will experience moderate to severe symptoms such as decreased mobility, altered gait, and accelerated degeneration of the hips and knees.
Lipedema typically begins and worsens coincident with periods of hormonal changes such as puberty, pregnancy, and menopause.
Although the progression of lipedema is as of yet poorly understood, there are therapies that work well to control the condition and help the patient to cope especially when the disease is caught early.
The Seriousness of Lipedema
If left untreated lipedema progresses in severity. The lymphatic system helps to balance fluids and protects the body against infection.
Due to the impact of lipedema, fat cells will build up and can block the lymphatic system therefore opening the body up to infections. The blockage of lymphatic fluids can lead to a buildup which can subsequently cause Lymphedema.
Delayed wound healing, development of scar-like tissue called fibrosis, and hardened skin in the legs can all be a result of this disease process.
Lipedema is an alarmingly common, highly impactful, and an effectively treatable disease which remains under-recognized among the medical community.
Alabama Vascular & Lymphatic Specialists is committed to educating patients and medical professional about lipedema.
If you have lipedema or you identify with a symptom(s) don’t delay, contact Alabama Vascular & Lymphatic Specialists today.
We provide the most comprehensive, progressive, and personal care available for lymphatic diseases, including lipedema, in the Birmingham, Alabama area.
During your visit our specialist(s) will work closely with you to develop a treatment plan to get you on the path to better health.