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Lipedema is a painful, poorly understood fat disorder. It develops when fat distributes unevenly beneath the skin, usually accumulating in large amounts in the buttocks and legs. If left untreated, lipedema can cause a myriad of health problems, reduce your quality of life, and present vast emotional and physical challenges.

The patient experience: What does lipedema look like?

The typical lipedema sufferer is a woman who can’t lose weight despite following a healthy diet and exercising regularly. The disorder affects about 17 million people in the United States and 270 million people around the world. The overwhelming majority of these individuals are women.

Lipedema can be mild, moderate or severe, and it can affect both thin and overweight individuals alike. No amount of diet or exercise can cure or prevent the condition. It commonly first appears during the teenage years and worsens over time.

The Symptoms

Lipedema is often wrongly dismissed as simple obesity. However, it is a distinct and unique medical disorder with different symptoms and treatment requirements.

The telltale signs of lipedema include:

  • Buttocks and legs that are proportionately larger than the upper body
  • Tender legs that bruise easily
  • Thick, column-like legs

The proportions associated with lipedema are often quite noticeable. For example, a typical lipedema sufferer may wear a size 8 on the upper body and a size 18 on the lower body.

Hormones + Genes The underlying causes of lipedema

Although the precise cause is not known, it is suspected that lipedema is related to female hormones because the condition is most common among women and tends to begin or worsen during puberty, pregnancy, and menopause, or following gynecologic surgery.

There is also likely a genetic component because the condition tends to run in families.

The Stages of Lipedema

Stage 1: Mild

  • The lower body begins to appear larger than the upper body
  • Extra tissue collects around the inner knees and thighs
  • The ankles and feet are not yet swollen
  • The skin appears healthy and normal
  • Fat may be painful with pressure
  • Tissue looks lumpy

Stage 2: Moderate

  • Fat begins to accumulate heavily around the ankles
  • Lumps of fat begin to develop throughout the legs
  • The skin will appear uneven, textured and discolored
  • Additional tissue collects in the area of the inner thighs and knees
  • Legs may feel swollen and painful

Stage 3: Advanced

  • Fat begins to accumulate on the upper arms and abdomen
  • The entire leg is swollen and painful
  • Fat fully encompasses the knees
  • The tissue appears lumpy
  • Mobility declines
  • Circulation and lymphatic functions are affected

FAQ: Will diet and exercise help?

Diet and exercise cannot reduce the fat associated with lipedema. Although it’s important to eat well and exercise to improve mobility and reduce your risk for other health problems, these healthy actions alone will not cure lipedema.

What happens if lipedema is not treated?

Lipedema is a medical disorder with serious health implications. As the condition progresses, your lower body will continue to become heavier and eventually the fat will collect in your arms and abdomen.

Over time, the excess fat may block the vessels of your lymphatic system – which is responsible for balancing bodily fluids and protecting against infection. This blockage can prevent the proper drainage of lymph fluid, which can result in lymphedema. Left untreated, lymphedema can cause infections, healing challenges, hardened skin, and the development of fibrosis, which is scar-like tissue.

What Is Lipedema?
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