WHY ARE MY LEGS SO FAT?
Do your legs seem disproportionately large compared to the rest of your body? If you bent over at the waist would your bottom half be significantly larger than the top half of your body? Do you have what some people would call a pear-shaped figure? Are your legs thick and column-like without much definition at the knees? Do your feet appear normal size, like the weight stops at your ankles? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you may have a disease called lipedema. Even though lipedema affects 11% of the adult female population in the US, it is often misdiagnosed and misunderstood.
LIPEDEMA AWARENESS MONTH
June is lipedema awareness month. It’s a disease that has long been ignored or dismissed as simply a weight problem. Lipedema is a chronic disease that causes a buildup of fatty tissue which leads to swelling, discomfort and pain. The fat tissue that accumulates with lipedema is different from regular fat. Lipedema is associated with a buildup of subcutaneous adipose tissue. This type of fat tissue is found between the skin and muscle tissue and is not sensitive to metabolic change.
Lipedema cannot be cured, but it can be managed with the right kind of care. Early diagnosis and treatment is essential to manage lipedema effectively. Unfortunately, lipedema is a disease that is commonly misdiagnosed as obesity. How can you tell the difference between the two, and how can we bring more awareness to this disease?
LIPEDEMA OR OBESITY?
Even though it may be difficult to separate obesity from lipedema, there are some different characteristics that we can look for. Firstly, lipedema almost exclusively occurs in women, where obesity occurs in both men and women. Secondly, it is often associated with hormonal changes in women where obesity can develop at any time. Furthermore, obesity usually affects the entire body, while lipedema usually symmetrically affects legs and sometimes the arms. In addition, pain and easy bruising is associated with lipedema, but is not often seen in obesity. Finally, dieting and exercise seem to have little or no effect on lipedema, which is not the case in obesity.
GETTING A DIAGNOSIS
There is no specific test or tool to diagnose lipedema. Undeniably, this can make getting a proper diagnosis challenging at times. The lack of awareness both in the medical profession and society as a whole makes it even more difficult. Therefore, it is important to advocate for your own health. Learn as much as you can and seek expert guidance when available.
Your medical history and a physical exam are the primary elements of diagnosis for lipedema. This may be enough to determine if you have lipedema, however, your health care professional may need further information. Any other underlying disease may first have to be ruled out. There are a few diagnostic tools that can help determine if other factors are playing into the cause of your symptoms. Ultrasound scans and lymphography, which uses radiocontrast agents to visualize your lymphatic system under X-ray, are a couple of methods that can help.
Depending on the severity of the disease, your healthcare professional may refer you to a specialized clinic for treatment. Clinics for lymphedema and lipedema have the advantage of being more familiar with the disease and the treatment of the disease.
When it comes to a chronic disease like lipedema, depression can also be an issue. You may feel isolated and alone in your struggle. However, there are many resources available, including resources on the internet to help support and guide you. One of my favorite support groups for lipedema is “Lipedema Simplified,” which you can find on our lymphedema resource page. There are also many groups on social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram.
Because June is lipedema awareness month, I wanted to do my part to bring more awareness and insight into this disease that is often mistaken for simple fat or obesity. You may not just be “big-boned” or “pear shaped,” you may have a chronic disease called lipedema. There are ways to manage this disease and there are people who can help and support you. Reach out, you are not alone!
Please note these recommendations are to serve as guidelines only and I recommend consulting with your lymphedema therapist and/or doctor if you have any concerns or questions about safety in the heat of summer.