Lipedema: A Rare Fat Cell Disease

Patient Expert

It cannot be exercised away, nor can it be relieved by diets or fasting. It is not a nutritional disorder although it is often cited as one, and dieting is inappropriately recommended. Weight will be lost due to the diet, but the trademark massive legs will remain.

Nutritional disorders can be a side effect though. Sex life is dramatically impaired and often substituted with food. This substitution can result in nutritional problems.

There is no medicinal treatment. Pills and creams have no value. It is under-diagnosed globally, especially in the United States.

It is the disease lipedema, and incidence in the United States could effect as many as 17 million women.

What is Lipedema?
Lipedema is a disorder of adipose tissue. It almost exclusively effects women and is hereditary. Women of any size can get it, and it is characterized by a surplus and expansion of fat cells in a particular pattern.

Visually, lipedema presents as disproportionately large legs and, as the disease progresses, a dramatic increase in size of the lower body. Long periods of either standing or sitting can cause fluid to accumulate in the legs and promote swelling. There can be great pain in the legs as well as a sensitivity to touch. Bruising may occur easily in the effected areas of the body.

There are generally four degrees of severity. The first stage is spontaneously reversible and will resolve itself after a nights rest. The second stage can be reversed after treatment. In the third stage, connective tissue hardens. Therapy is needed to address the condition, although the damaged connective tissue remains. The fourth stage is irreversible buildup of fluid between cells that can result in elephantiasis.

The disease is often misdiagnosed as obesity.

Complications
One of the more serious complications is secondary lipedema, when the excess weight crushes lymphatics and causes blockages. The excess weight can also cause deterioration of joints and vertebrae.

Additional complications can include varicose veins or great pain due to the effect the disease has on the body's systems. There can also be a pins and needles sensation, a decreased flow in fluid carrying vessels in affected limbs, and decreased skin temperature in affected limbs.

Treatment
Conservative treatments such as compression treatment combined with lymph drains can offer relief, although the fat deposits seldom disappear altogether.  Lymphatic vessels are opened through a massage technique and about 500 ml of lymph and water are moved from each leg into lower lying larger veins.

Liposuction is also an option if conservative therapies fail and if a person is in good health. Varicose veins should be removed six months prior to treatment.   Severely obese patients are not suited for liposuction.

Before committing to liposuction, some education about side-effects, expense, and long-term results is recommended. Multiple consultations prior to any commitment is a good idea.

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