Before tackling the issues and symptoms associated with lipedema, it is important to assess your vein health by working closely with a vein specialist. Vein issues and lipedema, both can cause painful, heavy legs, and tenderness, so it can be difficult to know if your symptoms are related to veins or solely to lipedema. An experienced vein specialist can get you on the right path to a diagnosis and treatment plan.
Many women with lipedema require lifelong use of compression garments, so the advantages of treating vein issues are somewhat limited. Plus, unfortunately, edema in the legs of lipedema patients generally does not significantly improve after vein treatment. However, lipedema reduction surgery can at least temporarily treat venous insufficiency. Vein issues and issues with the lymphatic system are connected.
Lipedema is a fat disorder, mainly affecting women, that causes an enlargement of both legs due to deposits of fat under the skin. It’s characterized as a “progressive disorder,” meaning it generally gets worse over time. Sufferers living with lipedema experience easy bruising and tenderness, pain in the affected areas, and significant disability in daily life. In severe and more progressive cases, the trunk and upper body may also be affected, including the arms and upper back. Little is known about the disorder, and it’s often misdiagnosed and incorrectly treated as general obesity.
Lipedema reduction surgery is a spin-off of liposuction focused on the reduction of lipedema tissues including fibrous tissue, fat, and extracellular contents. It is possible for lymphatics to be injured by a suction cannula during lipedema reduction surgery and/or cosmetic liposuction. Some argue whether this is possible, but studies show it can, and unfortunately, may happen for some. So, it is important if you have lipedema, or suspect you may have lipedema that you get a proper diagnosis and work closely with skilled surgeons well-versed in lipedema, lymphatics and lymphedema for the best possible outcomes and treatment plan before you proceed with any type of liposuction.
According to a study by Wright and Herbst, in patients with normal lymphatic function, and no severe injury to the lymphatic collectors, the lymphatic system almost always recovers and returns to a normal state. Suction lipectomy with small blunt cannulas and surgical techniques that focus on avoiding lymphatic damage have been reported to halt lipedema progression. A modification of suction lipectomy can result in alleviating or at least improving the swelling, leg heaviness and fatigue, the need for limb compression, and the need for lymphatic massage in women with lipedema. In patients with an impaired lymphatic function such as chronic lymphedema (or lipedema), careful suction lipectomy using techniques to avoid lymphatic injury can result in improved lymphatic function and a decreased rate of secondary infection or cellulitis in the affected limbs.
There are well-documented changes in the lymphatics of women with lipedema. The lymphatics are dilated and tortuous. Here are the differences between lipedema and lymphedema:
Protective measures to lessen risk of lymphatic injury include:
The short answer is this issue is hard to study as it is not possible to examine on live patients. There is one study by Hoffman which showed a longitudinal cannula technique and tumescent solution caused less injury to the lymphatics post-mortem. There is some evidence that the preoperative mapping of venous and lymphatic structures can lower the risk of lymphatic injury. While there is clear evidence lymphatic injury can occur, there is no definitive proof of what surgical techniques can prevent lymphatic injury from liposuction or lipedema reduction surgery. Lymphatic injury complications are poorly recognized after suction lipectomy surgeries and therefore are less likely to be reported in the literature for both lymphedema and lipedema.
Crescenzi R, Marton A, Donahue PMC, Tissue sodium content is elevated in the skin and subcutaneous adipose tissue in women with lipedema: Obesity (Silver Spring), 2018; 26(2); 310-17.
Hoffmann JN, Fertmann JP, Baumeister RG, Putz R, Frick A. Tumescent and dry liposuction of lower extremities: differences in lymph vessel injury. Plast Reconstr Surg. 2004 Feb;113(2):718-24; discussion 725-6. doi: 10.1097/01.PRS.0000101506.84361.C9. PMID: 14758241.
Iker E, Mayfield CK, Gould DJ, Patel KM, Characterizing lower extremity lymphedema and lipedema with cutaneous ultrasonography and an objective computer-assisted measurement of dermal echogenicity: Lymphat Res Biol, 2019; 7(10); 525-30.
Peprah K, MacDougall D: Liposuction for the treatment of lipedema: A review of clinical effectiveness and guidelines, 2019, Ottawa (ON), Canadian Agency for Drugs and Technologies in Health.
Rasmussen 2022. Lymphatic function and anatomy in early stages of lipedema
It also well reported that higher stages of lipedema are associated with impaired lymphatic functioning. ,7–9].
The Diagnosis and Treatment of Peripheral Lymphedema: 2016 Consensus Document of the International Society of Lymphology: Lymphology, 2016; 49(4); 170-84.
Wright TF, Herbst KL. A Case Series of Lymphatic Injuries After Suction Lipectomy in Women with Lipedema. Am J Case Rep. 2022 Jul 11;23:e935016. doi: 10.12659/AJCR.935016. PMID: 35811389; PMCID: PMC9284075.\
When dealing with the effects of lipedema, your body can also feel the repercussions of direct impact on your lymphatic and venous circulation system. Both systems together help the body create lymph. Venous disorders like venous hypertension and venous reflux impact these combined systems to create excess lymph production. Having an overwhelmed production can lead to overloaded lymphatic circulation. Both the venous system and our lymphatic circulation utilize passive contractions to clear this fluid from our limbs.
As a result, our team has put together some of the most important and most impactful information about Lipedema, how it can affect your veins, and how to get a proper diagnosis. Read it, re-read it, and share it with the women in your life. Some of the pain we’ve lived with for decades may actually have a life-changing solution!
Despite affecting an estimated 11% of women around the world, Lipedema is not yet widely known. Fat cells, (also referred to as adipose tissue) provide the human body with both cushioning and insulation. Lipedema affects the accumulation of these fat cells in the body, resulting in bulging, irregular fat in the affected areas. The legs are the most commonly affected area, but sometimes spreading occurs in the torso, and in many cases, excessive clustering of fat cells is noticed in the arms as well. Regardless of the affected area, the symptoms are equally debilitating, and unfortunately, these fat cells are equally resistant to both diet and exercise programs.
Unlike Lymphedema or general obesity, Lipedema has a tendency to affect both limbs equally and generally becomes more apparent over the course of time. Lipedema’s progressive nature makes getting a proper diagnosis and treatment imperative and extremely time-sensitive – as the disorder progresses so does the pain, immobility, and discomfort.
In addition to the characteristic disproportionate fat accumulation, there are specific physical signs and symptoms of Lipedema. Do any of the following Lipedema symptoms sound like something you regularly experience?
Lipedema Symptoms Checklist:
☑Tender skin that is sensitive to the touch, feels pressure when walking or climbing stairs, crossing your legs, or sitting for long periods of time.
☑Skin’s surface feels nodular and firm, like beans in a bean bag or rubber balls.
☑Skin’s surface is uneven, with large bulges and valleys up and down. Areas that were traditionally thought of as cellulite are much more dramatic and bulging.
☑Skin’s temperature is relatively cool.
☑Legs feel heavy and tired.
☑Swelling in the affected area (legs, arms), worsening during the day, and better at night after you’re able to elevate your limbs (such as laying in bed).
☑Disproportionate fat accumulation, not affected by calorie restriction. Think extreme “pear-shaped” body.
☑Feet and hands are unaffected by weight gain or swelling. As a result, there’s often a “cuff” at the ankles or wrists.
Our lymphatic system has several key jobs to help our body function properly. First, it drains our body cells of any debris that needs to be removed. It also drains any excess fluid our tissues have built up. The lymphatic system also transports any clean fluid back to our blood that needs it. With such an important job for our body, it is critical to understand how lipedema can cause additional lymphatic issues. Individuals with lipedema will notice that their lymph fluids are not properly draining, causing a buildup in the legs. This fluid building can be painful and cause additional swelling.
Our venous system is made up of deep venous pumps and veins located throughout the legs. These pumps when properly working pump 90% of the blood from the legs. The other 10% of the blood is pumped through a superficial venous system. While this system is typically less important than the deep venous pumps, they are at more risk when lipedema is involved. Blood flow may reverse and flow in the opposite direction; healthy vein valves ensure our blood is flowing in one direction for a healthy system.
The symptoms of Lipedema and venous insufficiency are similar. They both cause heaviness, tenderness, fatigue, and swelling. They often both have discoloration in the shins, easy bruising, and prominent veins. In more advanced cases of venous insufficiency, not only does venous lymphedema develop, but a secondary Veno- Lipo- Lymphedema develops. With the overwhelmed lymph circulation, the ability to clear fatty acids from the affected tissue is compromised and a secondary fat accumulation occurs. In many cases, the best way to differentiate between lipedema and venous insufficiency and veno- lipo-lymphedema is to have a specialized standing venous Doppler ultrasound to check for venous reflux.
Now that you’ve reviewed the signs and symptoms of Lipedema, determined that you identify with at least some of them, and you’ve familiarized yourself with other commonly related diagnoses, it’s time to find a Lipedema specialist and get tested! Each Lipedema doctor will have their own preferred method of diagnosing their patients and typically will include a physical exam, patient questionnaires, and then additional testing and ultrasounds to further support the physical exam.
Below are the different tests you may experience during this time, and it’s important to keep them in mind as you select your doctor. Moving forward, thoroughness will be your best friend; we highly recommend “interviewing” different Lipedema experts to find someone you trust, someone who can provide at least some of these diagnostic tests, and someone who is well versed in treatment options.
Note: There is no single test to diagnose Lipedema. Tests, however, are important to rule out a related disorder.
The Stemmer’s Sign is the inability to pinch the skin between the toes or fingers. As mentioned in our last section, Lipedema in advanced stages can be complicated by secondary Lymphedema and may have a stemmer’s sign. This test can help Lipedema experts determine if this is the case for you.
A Venous Doppler Ultrasound is a very useful test for the diagnosis of Lipedema. Lipedema has many similarities to venous insufficiency (as explained above), so this can help rule out or confirm venous insufficiency. The Venous Doppler Ultrasound can readily detect venous insufficiency if done properly and by having the patient stand while completing it. Unfortunately, most hospital vascular labs complete Venous Doppler Ultrasounds with the patient lying down, While this is the typical way to find Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT), it is definitely not a successful method to detect venous insufficiency. A standing venous Doppler ultrasound is a painless, non-invasive, and inexpensive test that provides a lot of useful information about venous circulation. The Doppler ultrasound not only helps determine the presence of underlying venous problems, but it also gives critical information for managing Lipedema. If venous insufficiency is present, it is important that treatment is given as the resulting increased venous pressures can greatly aggravate Lipedema.
This is generally only used in complicated cases, where clinical diagnosis is not clear. This is a nuclear scan that assesses the lymph system. It may come back as normal in patients with Lipedema and may show the characteristic “corkscrew” changes with Lymphedema. In most cases of Lymphedema, lymphoscintigraphy shows delayed uptake. So lymphoscintigraphy can be very helpful to determine if and how significant a role lymphedema is playing in an individual’s symptoms, especially when there are widespread issues of swelling in the body.
Vein insufficiency and other venous issues can cause your lipedema symptoms to worsen over time. Significant vein insufficiency can cause venous issues that are not superficial such as ulcers. If you are looking into surgical treatment for lipedema, you will need your vein issues to be treated first. Vein issues can cause problems during surgery if blood flow is not working correctly. It can also lead to poor wound healing after the procedure has been completed. The increased risk of blood clots is one factor any surgeon will want to avoid.
First – congratulations! We know the road to diagnosis is emotionally draining, physically painful, and it can feel lonely and discouraging. The time and research it takes to make it to this point are huge, and you should be proud of yourself and the courage it takes to be your own advocate. Our hope for all women with Lipedema, whether they are our patients or not, is that we can provide valuable tools and knowledge so that more women can make it to this point and take the next step in living a more mobile, healthy, and enjoyable life.
After going through the diagnosis process and receiving a positive Lipedema diagnosis, most patients are relieved, overjoyed, and validated by their endless search. After years of living with the private struggle and knowledge that “something just isn’t right” in their body, putting a name to the issues is a huge win. And after an official diagnosis, there are many different treatment paths available to you! A treatment plan should be discussed and developed between you and your Lipedema doctor, but you can read more about the non-surgical and surgical options that we recommend to our patients. While these will always depend on specific cases and patient needs, they can give you an idea of what options may be available to you. Good luck!