The genetic disorder lipedema causes large deposits of fat, usually in the legs. Most people with the condition cannot reduce the fat accumulation even with rigorous dieting, according to a study published in the February 2010 issue of Advances in Skin and Wound Care: The Journal for Prevention and Healing, with lead author Dr. Caroline E. Fife. Preventing extra weight gain is important or symptoms can become worse.
Lipedema is most common in women and usually appears in their teens, according to Dr. Tony Reid, writing at the Peninsula Medical website. Lipedema patients often have family members with very large legs. The condition begins slowly and progressively worsens, particularly in people who become significantly overweight. Although lipedema is not rare, physicians rarely diagnose it because they do not recognize the symptoms, notes Reid.
Excess fat in the legs caused by lipedema usually does not include the ankles and feet, and the fat deposits are generally symmetric, according to Reid. Many patients only experience the fat accumulation in their legs and buttocks, although it can occur elsewhere. It may develop in the upper arms, for instance, while the rest of the arm remains normal. Another possible symptom of lipedema is mild pitting edema, or swelling due to fluid accumulation that leaves a dent when pressed. Sometimes this can be relieved by elevating the legs. The patient also may feel heaviness, discomfort, tenderness or aching pain in the legs, and the condition is sometimes called painful fat syndrome.
Up to 50 percent of people with lipedema are overweight, but most have a normal upper body size, according to the Advances in Skin & Wound Care article by Fife, Dr. Erik A. Maus and Marissa J. Carter. Dieting tends to cause upper body fat loss in these individuals while having little effect on the legs. Nevertheless, avoiding further weight gain is important because it can prevent worsening of the condition.
Doctors frequently mistake lipedema for another disorder or assume the individual simply is obese, according to the Advances in Wound Care article. This means many patients undergo inappropriate treatments or attempt aggressive dietary therapy and exercise, none of which works. Since the patients tend to be embarrassed about their condition, the unsuccessful attempts at fat reduction make the situation even more distressing and the individuals are prone to depression, the article says. Lipedema patients may develop eating disorders while trying to reduce the excess fat.
Liposuction can remove fatty tissue associated with lipedema, according to the Advances in Skin and Wound Care article. Obese patients can benefit from bariatric surgery that helps them avoid further weight gain. Fife and her co-authors note the need for research on whether any specific types of diet are more advantageous for treating or preventing the fat accumulation.