Differences between Lipedema and Lymphedema

Lipedema and Lymphedema

What is Lipedema?

Lipedema is a condition in which fat is distributed in an irregular way beneath the skin, usually concentrated in the legs and buttocks. Lipedema, which affects about 11 percent of women, can be painful and lead to issues with mobility.  Although it begins as a cosmetic concern, it can eventually cause pain and other problems. Lipedema can be mistaken for regular obesity or lymphedema.

Causes of Lipedema

Lipedema can be inherited. It may develop gradually during puberty. The condition also may get worse due to a trauma, such as surgery or pregnancy. Lipedema mostly affects women, and doctors suspect that female hormones play a role.

What is Lymphedema?

Lymphedema refers to swelling that generally occurs in one of your arms or legs. Sometimes both arms or both legs swell.

Lymphedema is most commonly caused by the removal of or damage to your lymph nodes as a part of cancer treatment. It results from a blockage in your lymphatic system, which is part of your immune system. The blockage prevents lymph fluid from draining well, and the fluid buildup leads to swelling.

There’s no cure for lymphedema. But it can be managed with early diagnosis and diligent care of your affected limb.

Causes of Lymphedema?

One of the causes of lymphedema is surgery to remove lymph nodes camera.gif, usually during cancer treatment. Normally, lymph nodes filter fluid as it flows through them, trapping bacteria, viruses, and other foreign substances, which are then destroyed by special white blood cells called lymphocytes. Without normal lymph drainage, fluid can build up in the affected arm or leg, and lymphedema can develop. Medicines such as tamoxifen (Nolvadex), radiation therapy, and injury to the lymph nodes can also cause lymphedema. This type is called secondary lymphedema.

Primary lymphedema can be present at birth or develop during puberty or adulthood. The cause of primary lymphedema is not known.

What is the Differences between Lipedema and Lymphedema?

Primarily the lower extremities are affected, but lipedema may occur in combination with the upper extremities as well. Lipedema is characterized by symmetric enlargement of the limbs, combined with tenderness and easy bruising.

Lipedema is not caused by a disorder of the lymphatic system; however, it is commonly misdiagnosed as bilateral primary lymphedema.

Several marked differences between lipedema and primary lymphedema can be distinguished; these differences are highlighted in the table below.

While lipedema always affects both legs symmetrically (bilateral appearance), primary lymphedema usually affects one leg only. If both legs are involved in primary lymphedema the swelling appears asymmetric.

Differences at a Glance

Lipedema Lymphedema
Symmetric (buttocks involved) Not symmetric
Foot not involved Foot involved
Not pitting Pitting edema
Stemmer sign negative Stemmer sign positive
Tissue feels rubbery Tissue feels firmer (starting stage 2 lymphedema)
Painful to touch Generally not painful to touch
Easy bruising Generally not bruising
Hormonal disturbances frequent Generally no hormonal disturbance

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