Managing lipedema in the arms

Lipedema is a chronic condition that affects 17 million women in the U.S. But it’s often misdiagnosed, leaving women with debilitating pain and unanswered questions about their bodies. Fortunately, with an accurate diagnosis from a certified specialist, the painful condition can be improved. But the first step is understanding what’s happening in your body, so you can seek the right help. 

What is arm lipedema?

Lipedema is a painful pathologic fat disorder that causes significant swelling and fat storage in the arms and legs. With lipedema, a person’s fat cells are programmed incorrectly, so fat distributes differently in the arms and legs than in other parts of the body. 

“Normal fat cells shrink or get bigger when you change your diet and exercise routines,” explains Thao Messinger, M.S., PA-C. “But fat cells affected by lipedema don’t communicate in a normal way. They continue to grow regardless of what a person does. The result is a person whose arms or legs are disproportionate to the rest of their body.” 

Because it’s often mistaken for obesity, women suffering from lipedema participate in extreme diets and exercise regimens in an effort to lose weight. And while they might shed pounds in their face and torso, their arms and legs remain enlarged. And without an accurate diagnosis, they spend years in pain, feeling frustrated at the lack of results.

What causes lipedema in the arms?

Lipedema is often caused by critical hormone disturbances, which is why the condition primarily affects women. Critical hormone disturbances can include the onset of puberty, perimenopause, menopause, pregnancy or hormone removal surgery. While the disorder is often inherited, it can also occur after certain surgeries or trauma. 

How does arm lipedema affect a patient’s quality of life?

Lipedema has a significant impact on a patient’s overall health and well-being. The excess weight and intense pain in a person’s arms or legs makes everyday tasks more difficult. And the frustration caused by limited mobility and a lack of answers eventually affects patients’ mental and emotional states.

The physical pains of lipedema 

The most prominent lipedema symptom is chronic and constant pain. Fatty tumors that develop in a person’s arms or legs are extremely painful and sensitive to the touch, and lipedema patients are typically in pain from the time they wake up to the time they go to bed. The pain makes it difficult to get up in the morning, shower, get into bed, clean, work and exercise. Even fitted clothing or a gentle touch on the arm can be excruciating.

“Because excess fat accumulates in the arms and legs, lipedema limits a person’s range of motion and makes it difficult to move their heavy limbs,” notes Messinger. “As they go about their day, it feels like they’re carrying a heavy load and that prevents them from living a normal life. They become so tired by the end of the workday, they only have enough energy to put up their feet and rest.” 

Often with lipedema, fatty deposits develop on the inside of a person’s legs and knees, which makes it difficult to stand for long periods of time or even walk. Kneeling is unthinkable, and to avoid their knees touching, patients start to adjust their gait when walking. This, in turn, causes damage to the knees and ankles.  

Over time, the pain becomes a cycle. Pain prevents movement, so lipedema sufferers live a sedentary life. Being sedentary creates more swelling, mobility decline and circulation issues, which causes more swelling and pain. Those circulation issues can even cause more serious cardiovascular problems down the line. 

Mental and emotional suffering caused by lipedema

Beyond the physical pain and discomfort, many lipedema patients struggle mentally and emotionally. Without an accurate diagnosis, they don’t understand what’s wrong with their body or why their arms and legs aren’t reacting to changes in diet and exercise. Women who suffer from lipedema become angry, depressed, hopeless, have low self-esteem, and feel isolated and confused. 

Feeling uncomfortable in their bodies, they stop going out and further isolate themselves from friends and family, adding to feelings of depression and loneliness. Fortunately, with the right doctor, many patients can receive an accurate diagnosis and treatment that relieves the physical and emotional pain of lipedema.

How do you get rid of lipedema in your arms?

Lipedema fat cells are resistant to diet and exercise. In order to remove the pathologic fat cells affected by lipedema, a patient will ultimately need surgery.

Lipedema surgery uses water-jet-assisted liposuction to target specific pathologic fat cells and remove them permanently. This surgery results in an increased range of motion, reduced volume and weight, and the ability to move without pain or fatigue. In addition to an improved quality of life, patients can resume normal activities that were previously impossible with lipedema. 

Before and after surgery, lipedema patients may work with a physical therapist to manage pain or increase mobility. And an anti-inflammatory diet that cuts out sugar, alcohol and processed foods may be recommended to ease pain caused by inflammation.

“Though lipedema surgery does permanently remove most pathologic fat cells, it may be impossible to get them all,” warns Messinger. “The remaining fat cells can react to future fluctuations in hormones depending on when surgery occurs, so lipedema patients are at an increased risk of developing the condition again.” 

Lipedema surgery vs. liposuction 

It’s important to note that lipedema surgery is different than liposuction. Lipedema surgery is a very complex, reconstructive procedure that many cosmetic plastic surgeons aren’t equipped to perform. If a plastic surgeon attempts to remove lipedema fat cells with lasers and is too aggressive, the surgery itself can actually cause lymphedema in the patient. So it’s important for patients to find a surgeon who is specially trained in this specific type of fat cell removal.

The difference between lipedema and lymphedema 

At first glance, lipedema and lymphedema may look similar. Both cause limb enlargement that can be quite painful. While lipedema is caused by pathologic fat cells, lymphedema occurs when the lymphatic system is damaged during cancer treatment or other surgeries. This damage results in a blockage of lymphatic fluid, which is very toxic. 

“When a blockage occurs, the fluid doesn’t drain properly and seeps into the surrounding fatty tissue,” says Messinger. “The fat cells become inflamed, which over time, causes scarring and fibrosis and the limb swells. Lipedema, on the other hand, occurs when the fat cells themselves don’t function properly.” 

A doctor who specializes in lymphedema and lipedema will quickly be able to tell which condition affects patients and then offer up the appropriate treatment.   

The Granzow difference 

Dr. Granzow is a board-certified, internationally acclaimed surgeon who is highly trained at diagnosing and treating lymphedema and lipedema. He developed the Lipisuction® technique, which safely and effectively treats lipedema.

Our team at the Granzow Lymphedema & Lipedema Center specializes in offering relief for patients who have been suffering and struggling to get an accurate diagnosis for years. Not only do we offer effective treatment, but our Patient Advocates help patients obtain insurance coverage for their surgery, which is notoriously difficult. And they do it free of charge. 

If you’ve been suffering with lipedema and are ready for a change, reach out to the experts at Granzow Lymphedema & Lipedema Center to get the relief you deserve.