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What Is Lipedema?

Lipedema is a condition that involves an abnormal accumulation of fat in the lower body. Sometimes, the arms are also affected. Lipedema is a progressive condition that only worsens over time. It can be painful and may cause mobility problems. It also causes low self-esteem due to the disproportionate appearance it gives the sufferer’s body.

Who Suffers From Lipedema?

Lipedema appears almost exclusively in women, and it’s believed up to 11% of all women are sufferers. Some women show the first signs of lipedema in their teenage years, but others won’t display symptoms until they are much older. It’s often difficult to get a diagnosis, since the condition is poorly understood. Doctors often mistake lipedema for obesity, which can lead to delayed treatment and poorer outcomes for sufferers.

What Are The Symptoms Of Lipedema?

Often, doctors and sufferers alike confuse the early signs of lipedema with obesity. Over time, though, the abnormal accumulation of fat becomes more pronounced.

The symptoms include:

  • A larger lower body than upper body
  • Column-like legs but unaffected feet
  • Both legs are usually equally affected
  • Tenderness and easy bruising of the legs
  • Larger upper arms without the hands being affected
  • A soft, cool texture to the skin
  • Fatty nodules under the skin

Initially, lipedema is an aesthetic problem. Many sufferers feel embarrassed by their appearance and suffer from poor self-confidence. Eventually, though, the condition becomes a medical problem. The fat build-up reduces mobility and causes chronic pain. It is important to seek help at an early stage for lipedema.

What Causes Lipedema?

Presently, no one knows the precise cause of lipedema. Experts understand; however, that obesity doesn’t cause lipedema. Many sufferers of lipedema have a healthy body weight, while some are underweight.

It’s believed that the condition may have links to hormonal changes. Symptoms often appear for the first time or get worse during or just after:

  • Puberty
  • Pregnancy
  • Gynecological surgery
  • Menopause
  • Taking oral contraceptives

Lipedema may also have a genetic link. Often, when one family member suffers from lipedema, other close relatives will show symptoms too.

What Happens When Lipedema Progresses?

Lipedema is a progressive condition and worsens over time. Often, the abnormal fat will begin to appear first in the upper legs. It may affect the rest of the legs, the hips, and buttocks. Without treatment, the fat will continue building up, making the lower body grow bigger and heavier. Yet, the feet remain unaffected, often with a cuff of fat at the ankle.

In some cases, the abnormal fat will start to accumulate in the upper arms. The condition doesn’t affect the hands, but a cuff of fat may appear at the wrists. The body will begin to look extremely disproportionate, and eventually, large folds of fat will begin to form.

The fat cells may eventually block the lymphatic system’s vessels. These normally help to keep the body’s fluid levels in balance and guard against infections. When these vessels become blocked, the lymph fluid cannot drain away effectively, which leads to fluid build-up called lymphedema.

Without treatment, lymphedema may eventually cause infections, delayed healing of wounds, hardened skin, and fibrosis.

Can Lipedema Be Treated?

Doctors cannot cure lipedema at present; however, there are treatments available. Treatments for lipedema are both conservative and surgical treatments on offer.

Conservative treatments address the symptoms of lipedema and not the cause. They include:

  • MLD or Manual Lymphatic Drainage. MLD is a type of massage, which uses rhythmic, gentle pumping movements that stimulates lymph flow. It moves the lymph fluid around the blocked areas into healthy vessels. From there, it can drain into the body’s venous system, relieving pain and preventing fibrosis.
  • Compression therapy. Compression therapy involves using custom-fitted compression garments or bandages to increase the pressure in the tissues. It helps to prevent the fluid from building up in the limbs.
  • Exercise can help to reduce the build-up of fluid and improve mobility. By exercising regularly, it’s possible to maintain better levels of movement and help the legs to work more effectively.
  • Nail and skincare help to reduce the chance of infections and wounds in the swollen skin.

There is also surgical treatment for lipedema, which addresses the cause of the problem – the abnormal fat cells.

Liposuction is the most effective treatment for lipedema. Unlike liposuction for cosmetic purposes, it is a medical treatment. It permanently removes the painful and abnormal fat cells from the affected areas. Patients report feeling less pain, and having greater mobility.

Lipedema liposuction involves making small incisions in the affected areas. The surgeon then passes a narrow cannula through the incisions, and they suction the fat cells out. The patient may need multiple sessions to remove the fat from different areas of the body. Afterward, the patient enjoys better mobility and reduced pain. Their body appearance also becomes more proportionate, which helps to restore their self-esteem and improve their quality of life.

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