Lipoedema (or lipodema) and lymphedema are two medical conditions that are often mistaken for one another. Although similar in name, these two conditions impact the body in significantly different ways. It’s crucial to understand the difference between the two and how each can be effectively managed and treated.
Lipoedema (lip-o-dee-muh) is a chronic disorder of fat metabolism and distribution which usually manifests as a disproportionate amount of fat being stored in the lower half of the body. Whilst lipoedema may affect both men and women, it’s most commonly seen in women. Lipoedema sufferers will present with a disproportionate amount of fat stored in the outer thighs, inner thighs, lower legs and ankles and sometimes the upper arms. In severe cases, the fatty collections can be quite disfiguring, leading to problems with joints and mobility. The cause of lipoedema is unknown however many doctors believe it’s linked to hormones, particularly in women as many symptoms develop or worsen during times of extreme hormonal changes such as puberty, pregnancy or menopause. Those suffering from lipoedema experience hormonal disturbances, frequent bruising of the skin and develop tissue that feels rubbery to touch. Lipoedema is a progressive disease and will worsen with age. Some studies have shown that lipoedema may run in families.
Lymphedema (lim-fi-dee-muh) on the other hand, is an excess build-up of fluid in the arms or lower legs. Where lipoedema is primarily a condition that is characterised by increased fatty tissue in the affected areas, lymphoedema is essentially a build-up of lymph fluid in these tissues. Lymphoedema occurs because of a blockage in your lymphatic system which is part of your immune system. The blockage prevents your lymph fluid from draining properly and the build-up of excess fluid causes swelling. The causes of lymphoedema can be divided into primary or secondary; primary, where it occurs on its own or secondary, where it occurs as a result of another disease or condition. Primary lymphedema is rare and inherited and can develop in infancy, during puberty or pregnancy or in some cases after the age of 35. Secondary lymphedema can be caused by injury to lymph nodes in surgery, exposure to radiation treatments for cancer or an infection of the lymph nodes.
Interestingly, lymphoedema can also occur secondary to lipoedema. The reason for this is that the increased fatty tissue in lipoedema can compress and strangle the very delicate lymphatic tracts/vessels and impede the flow of lymph fluid resulting in a build-up of lymphatic fluid – aka lymphoedema. Those suffering from lymphedema experience different symptoms than those with lipoedema. Lymphedema sufferer’s skin tends to be more tolerant and not painful to touch. They also don’t bruise as easily and do not suffer from hormonal disturbance.
Management of lipoedema and lymphedema vary given how different they are. Unfortunately, there is no cure for either lipoedema or lymphedema, however there are several treatments available to reduce their impacts.
Lymphedema is most commonly managed with light exercise, pneumatic compression, bandages and special massage techniques under the supervision of your doctor. In extreme cases, surgery can be performed to remove excess tissue in order to reduce swelling.
Although many of these treatments can also help those suffering from lipoedema, a key difference between the two is the benefit liposuction has on managing the excess fat build up in those with lipoedema. Liposuction can help target the main areas of the body affected by lipoedema; buttocks, hips, thighs, lower legs and arms. In conjunction with a balanced diet and healthy lifestyle, liposuction can drastically reduce the symptoms of lipoedema and contribute to an increased quality of life in those living with the condition. Liposuction can help patients avoid long term weight gain and obesity and reduce swelling and discomfort while working towards the ultimate goal of regaining a proportionate distribution of stored fat in the body.
Here at Sculpture Clinic, part of the Paras Clinic, we have treatment options available for those with lipoedema who are looking for long term management, to reduce their symptoms and regain their confidence. Our treatments target the five most common combinations of affected areas and are performed under a local anaesthetic. Liposuction for lipoedema has a recovery time of about 3-4 weeks with results showing in just 3-5 days and improving over a 12-month period.