The average and healthy human body requires a balanced accumulation of adipose tissues, more commonly known as fat cells, to maintain proper cushioning, insulation and energy levels. For the vast majority of the population, fat cell counts are regulated through traditional diet and exercise in combination with the body’s natural ability to metabolize nutrients. Those individuals suffering from the condition known as Lipedema face a drastically different reality.
Lipedema is a condition where fat cells begin to excessively accumulate in the lower extremities and in some cases, this begins to happen in the torso and arms as well. Lipedema is recognized as a painful condition because of the swelling that occurs in areas where fat cells congregate. Lipedema tends to be most noticeable along the legs and around the hips and thighs. Medical experts believe that at least 80% of patients with Lipedema also suffer from the condition in their arms.
Lipedema was first recognized and categorized as a condition in the 1940s and since then, medical experts have been working hard to not only understand the condition in its entirety but search for causes and cures. While there’s no clear and present factor in the development of Lipedema, it is widely believed that Lipedema stems from significant changes in hormonal levels, creating a scenario where this condition affects women over men. Lipedema tends to develop quickly in times of hormonal fluctuation in women such as pregnancy, childbirth, and menopause. The number of women worldwide believed to be affected by Lipedema is currently estimated to be 11% of the population.
Because diet and exercise are inconsequential in the fight against slowing the symptoms of Lipedema, many women who suffer from this condition are initially misdiagnosed with either Lymphedema or traditional obesity. Lymphedema differs from Lipedema in that it tends to only cause fat build up in a single extremity and is associated with damaged lymph nodes.
In general, a woman suffering from Lipedema will present with disproportionate accumulations of fat along the legs and around the hips and thighs. While swelling is painful for the individual, a more noticeable symptom of Lipedema tends to be bruising. While there are some commonalities amongst symptoms, Lipedema has three distinct stages. Stage 1 includes flat and smooth skin appearing over an area of fat displaying as pearl-sized masses. Stage 2 shows up as indented skin over masses that range from the size of a pearl to the size of an apple. Stage 3 is the most severe and sees patients with large fat masses that present as lobules overlapping across the legs.
A recent study hoping to determine how changes in lymphatic vessel dimensions, fat cell fluctuations and issues related to surrounding tissues affected the development of Lipedema proved to have insightful and successful results. The aim of the study was to better understand the physiological processes that define Lipedema while also considering obesity as a factor in the development of the condition. In total, 49 participants were analyzed. 30 of those participants had Lipedema and 19 did not and were viewed as controls. The group as a whole was divided by body mass index into categories of obese and non-obese.
Samples of tissue from participants’ thigh were extracted via biopsy and analyzed under precision imaging software. The results of this analysis showed that fat cell dimensions among non-obese participants were significantly altered compared to their control groups with results close in numbers to their obese category counterparts. In line with these findings, dermal vessels were increased among non-obese group participants with Lipedema compared to control groups while macrophage numbers were also significantly increased among non-obese and obese participants with Lipedema compared to non-Lipedema counterparts.
Overall, 30% of those with Lipedema saw areas of increased blood vessels compared to 0% of those without Lipedema. Based on these findings, it can be understood that the presence of factors such as dilated capillaries, increased blood vessels and increased macrophages noticed from samples of thigh tissue and fat are equally present in non-obese and obese women suffering from Lipedema. This means it’s highly likely that altered vasculature could play a significant role in the development of the condition.