Lipedema vs. Lymphedema: What's the Difference?

Written By Center for Vein Restoration
Blog Lipidema v Lymphedema Whats The Difference

Lipedema and lymphedema are two conditions that often get confused because of their similar-sounding names and overlapping symptoms. However, they are distinct, complex conditions with different causes, symptoms, and treatment approaches.

In this blog, we'll delve into the differences and similarities between lipedema and lymphedema and offer some tips on diagnosing yourself at home so you can discuss your findings with your doctor.

Understanding Lipedema

Lipedema (sometimes called lipoedema or lipalgia) is a chronic condition characterized by an abnormal accumulation of fat and connective tissue, typically in the legs, hips, bottom, and sometimes in the arms. Lipedema may cause pain, swelling, and easy bruising. It may be accompanied by an unusual texture within the fat that the Lipedema Foundation describes as feeling like rice, peas, or walnuts are located just beneath the skin's surface.

According to Clevland Clinic, 1 in 72,000 people have lipedema. It predominantly affects women, with an estimated 11% of women worldwide experiencing some form of lipedema. While its exact cause isn't fully understood, genetics, hormonal factors, inflammation, and lifestyle play significant roles.

Lipedema can be painful and lead to swelling, bruising, and skin changes, negatively impacting a person's quality of life. Diagnosis is often based on physical examination, although imaging studies like ultrasound or MRI may be used to rule out other conditions.

Are people with lipedema obese?

One can be a healthy weight and still have lipedema. Lipedema is not considered "obesity" in the common sense of the word because fat from obesity is distributed throughout the body. Whereas in the case of lipedema, fat is confined to the limbs and, even then, is not dispersed evenly in the hands and feet. Also, unlike obesity, people with early-stage lipedema typically do not have diabetes, high cholesterol, or high blood pressure.

Causes of lipedema

Genetics: Family history is a significant risk factor for lipedema. Some studies have even identified specific genes associated with its development.

Hormonal Factors: Hormonal changes, such as those occurring during puberty, pregnancy, or menopause, influence the condition. Estrogen, in particular, is believed to promote fat storage and fluid retention.

Inflammation: Chronic inflammation in the body may contribute to lipedema. This ongoing inflammation can lead to changes in the distribution of fat tissue and fluid retention.

Lifestyle and Diet: While not a direct cause, factors like poor diet and a sedentary lifestyle can worsen lipedema symptoms. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle, including a balanced diet and regular exercise, can help manage the condition.

Lipedema treatment

Treatment for lipedema focuses on symptom management and improving the individual's quality of life. Conservative approaches include compression therapy with specially designed garments, manual lymphatic drainage (a specialized massage technique), and lifestyle modifications. In some cases, surgical interventions like liposuction may be considered to reduce excessive fat deposits.

Understanding Lymphedema

Lymphedema, on the other hand, is a condition characterized by swelling due to an impaired lymphatic system. The lymphatic system plays a crucial role in maintaining fluid balance and filtering waste products from the body. When this system is compromised, lymph fluid can accumulate in tissues, causing swelling, discomfort, and potential complications.

Causes: Lymphedema can be primary (inherited or congenital) or secondary (resulting from injury, surgery, or infection). Secondary lymphedema is more common, often occurring after cancer treatments that involve the removal of lymph nodes or radiation therapy.

Symptoms: Lymphedema typically presents with swelling in the arms or legs. The affected limb may feel heavy, tight, or achy. Skin changes, infections, and limited mobility can also occur.

Diagnosis: Lymphedema is often diagnosed based on clinical evaluation and medical history. Lymphoscintigraphy, MRI, and CT scans may be used to confirm the diagnosis and assess the extent of the condition.

Lymphedema treatment

Treatment for lymphedema typically involves a combination of therapies to manage swelling and improve quality of life. Treatment may include manual lymphatic drainage, compression garments, exercise, and skin care. In severe cases, surgery may be considered. Early intervention and ongoing self-care are crucial for effective lymphedema management.

Key Differences Between Lipedema and Lymphedema

  1. Underlying Causes:
    • Lipedema: Primarily genetic, with hormonal factors, inflammation, and lifestyle playing contributing roles.
    • Lymphedema: This can be primary (congenital) or secondary, often resulting from damage to the lymphatic system due to surgery, radiation therapy, or infection.
  2. Symptoms:
    • Lipedema: Involves swelling due to abnormal fat accumulation, often painful, with skin changes and bruising.
    • Lymphedema: Swelling due to lymphatic system dysfunction, typically painless initially but can lead to skin changes and increased risk of infections.
  3. Affected Areas:
    • Lipedema: Predominantly affects legs, sometimes arms.
    • Lymphedema: Commonly affects arms or legs, depending on the site of lymphatic system impairment.
  4. Onset:
    • Lipedema: Usually begins during puberty or pregnancy.
    • Lymphedema: Can develop after surgery, injury, or infection, with symptoms appearing at any age.
  5. Diagnosis:
    • Lipedema: Diagnosed primarily through physical examination, with imaging used to rule out other conditions.
    • Lymphedema: Diagnosis may involve imaging tests to confirm lymphatic system dysfunction.
  6. Treatment:
    • Lipedema: Focuses on symptom management with conservative approaches and, in some cases, liposuction.
    • Lymphedema: Aims to reduce swelling and improve lymphatic function, primarily through compression therapy, manual lymphatic drainage, and exercises.

Lipedema and Lymphedema: The Bottom Line

While lipedema and lymphedema both involve swelling in specific parts of the body, they have distinct causes, symptoms, and treatments. Lipedema primarily results from abnormal fat accumulation and is often painful, while lymphedema arises from dysfunction in the lymphatic system and is typically painless initially.

Accurate diagnosis and appropriate management are essential for individuals with either condition. Consulting a healthcare professional is crucial to receive the right treatment and support. If you suspect either lipedema or lymphedema, seek medical advice promptly to improve your quality of life and well-being.

Center for Vein Restoration (CVR) is America's largest physician-led vein center. Since 2007, our vein doctors have been dedicated to radically improving lives by providing safe, personalized, and positive outpatient treatment options for leg heaviness, restless legs, and other leg problems.

If you think you may have lipedema or lymphedema, reach out to CVR's Patient Services Representatives at 240-965-3915. They can assist you in scheduling an appointment with a nearby CVR vein physician to discuss and address your leg discomfort concerns and advise you of treatment options.

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