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Lipedema: A potentially devastating, often unrecognized disease



Lipedema – a disease that causes excess fat to accumulate primarily in the lower part of the body – is a condition “that most physicians in the U.S. don’t understand,” according to C. William Hanke, MD, MPH.

“This disease is well known in Europe, especially in the Netherlands, Germany, and Austria, but in this country, I believe most dermatologists have never heard of it,” Dr. Hanke said at the ODAC Dermatology, Aesthetic & Surgical Conference.

program director for the micrographic surgery and dermatologic oncology fellowship training program at Ascension St. Vincent Hospital in Indianapolis.

Dr. C. William Hanke

Clinically, patients with lipedema – also known as “two-body syndrome” – present with a symmetric, bilateral increase in subcutaneous fat, with “cuffs of fat” around the ankles. It usually affects the legs and thighs; the hands and feet are not affected.

“From the waist on up, the body looks like one person, and from the waist on down, it looks like an entirely different person,” said Dr. Hanke, a dermatologist who is program director for the micrographic surgery and dermatologic oncology fellowship training program at Ascension St. Vincent Hospital in Indianapolis. “Just think of the difficulty that the person has with their life in terms of buying clothes or social interactions. This is a devastating problem.”

Lipedema almost always affects women and is progressive from puberty. “Characteristically, patients have pain and bruise easily in the areas of lipedema,” said Dr. Hanke, who has served as president of the American Academy of Dermatology, the American Society for Dermatologic Surgery, the American College of Mohs Surgery, and the International Society for Dermatologic Surgery. The affected areas are painful to touch, making exercise uncomfortable for patients, he said.

This patient with lipedema has a history of hypertension and gastric bypass. Courtesy Dr. C. William Hanke.

Lipedema can be masked by obesity, “so, if you superimpose generalized obesity on lipedema, you have an even more difficult problem,” he added. “A physician who doesn’t understand the disease may perform standard nontumescent liposuction under general anesthesia, with cannulas, which traumatize lipedematous fat. Thereby, a patient with lipedema can then be inadvertently transformed into a patient with lympholipedema. Then you’ve got even an even worse problem.”

One might think that the rate of diabetes would be high among lipedema patients, “but diabetes is essentially nonexistent in this group,” he continued. However, patients with lipedema “may develop hypothyroidism, venous disease, joint pain, and fibrosis in the fat as the disease progresses.”

Lipedema stages, treatment

Lipedema is defined by three clinical stages: Stage one is characterized by an enlarged subcutaneous fat department, but the skin surface is smooth. In stage 2, the skin surface becomes wavy with irregularities and dents, and in stage 3, patients develop large deforming nodules and hanging flaps.

“If we can diagnose lipedema in the early stages and perform tumescent liposuction using tumescent local anesthesia, we can prevent the progression of the disease,” Dr. Hanke said. For patients who meet criteria for tumescent liposuction, three to six treatments may be required for stage 3 disease. “Tumescent local anesthesia should be used, because liposuction using tumescent local anesthesia is atraumatic to fat,” he said. “Usually, the most painful areas are treated first.”

In a single-center study from Germany that followed 85 patients who underwent tumescent liposuction for lipedema, researchers found that improvements in pain, bruising, and mobility were sustained at 4 and 8 years following the procedure. Patient quality of life and cosmetic appearance were also sustained.

In terms of liposuction’s cosmetic effects, “the goal of liposuction in lipedema patients is different,” Dr. Hanke said. “The goal is to get these people moving again, stabilize their weight, and minimize progression of the disease. Cosmetic improvement is secondary.”

A more recent follow-up study of 60 patients from the same single-center German study showed that the positive effects of liposuction lasted 12 years postoperatively without relevant progression of disease.

Following the first International Consensus Conference on Lipedema in Vienna in 2017, Dr. Hanke and colleagues published guidelines on preventing progression of lipedema with liposuction using tumescent local anesthesia.

“If patients with lipedema gain weight, the problem becomes even worse,” he said. “A sensible diet and nontraumatic exercise like water aerobics is ideal. If patients pursue yo-yo dieting, more and more fat stays in the legs after each cycle. Sometimes I’ll refer overweight patients with lipedema for a bariatric surgery consult.”

Dr. Hanke noted that Karen Herbst, MD, PhD, an endocrinologist at the University of Arizona, Tucson, who is widely considered an expert on the medical management of lipedema, has a website on lipedema care.

Dr. Hanke reported having no financial conflicts related to his presentation.

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