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Lipedema affects up to 11% of women. It happens when fat is distributed in an irregular way beneath your skin, usually in the buttocks and legs. Although it begins as a cosmetic concern, it can eventually cause pain and other problems.

Symptoms of Lipedema

The typical symptoms are a disproportionately large lower half and column-like legs, which are often tender and bruise easily. For example, the top half of your body may be a size 8, but the bottom half may be a size 16.

As the condition progresses, fat continues to build up, and your lower body grows heavier. Over time, expanding fat cells block the vessels of your lymphatic system, which normally helps balance body fluid levels and protect against infection. This blockage prevents the proper drainage of lymph fluid, leading to a buildup of fluid called lymphedema.

If not treated, lymphedema can lead to problems such as infections, delayed wound healing, development of scar-like tissue called fibrosis, and loss of function in the legs.

Causes of Lipedema

The cause is not known, but doctors suspect female hormones play a role. That's because the condition affects mostly women, and it often begins or worsens at puberty, during pregnancy, following gynecologic surgery, and around the time of menopause.

Scientists also believe genes are involved, because many women with the condition have family members with the condition.

Lipedema Treatments

Unfortunately, dieting and exercising will not reduce the fat involved in lipedema. A weight loss diet and exercise may leave you thinner on the top but not change fat on the lower affected half.

Lymph-Sparing Water Assisted Liposuction (WAL) is now being used in some parts of the United States to remove the diseased tissue. The procedure uses a hollow tube that is placed under the skin to suction the fat tissue. Several sessions may be needed depending on the amount of abnormal fat.

Another successful treatment called complete decongestive therapy can ease painful symptoms. Complete decongestive therapy involves:

Manual lymphatic drainage. A form of massage that uses gentle, rhythmic pumping movements to stimulate the flow of lymph around blocked areas to healthy vessels, where it can drain into the venous system. This helps relieve pain and prevent fibrosis.

Compression. The use of stretch bandages or custom-fitted panty hose, panties, or spandex shorts to increase tissue pressure in the swollen legs and lessen the odds of fluid building up again.

Exercise. Helps reduce fluid buildup, boost mobility, and maintain or improve how well your legs work.

Thorough skin and nail care. Helps lower the risk of wounds and infection.

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Stephanie S. Gardner, MD on July 22, 2014
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