What is a Lipoma?
Lipomas, or lipoma cysts, are soft, pliable lumps of fat cells beneath the skin. They are non-cancerous tumors, made up of benign, fatty tissue, which means that they will not invade the surrounding tissue and do not pose any risk to your health.
Lipomas are the same colour as your skin, and they vary in size: some are less than 1 cm in diameter, whilst others are 5 cm wide. Nevertheless, all lipomas grow slowly over time, and they will not disappear on their own. They can grow anywhere on the body, but it is most common for them to develop on the neck, chest, back, abdomen, arms or thighs.
As lipomas are soft, malleable bumps, they will move slightly beneath the skin when you apply pressure to them with a finger. In most cases, this should not cause any pain or tenderness, though lipomas can cause pain if they contain many blood vessels, or if they begin to press on a nearby nerve as they grow.
Lipomas are very common, with 1 in every 1,000 having one at some point in their lifetime. Whilst people of any age or sex can develop a lipoma, patients between the ages of 40 and 60 are most susceptible, and they are slightly more common in women than men. They also run in families, so people with relatives with a lipoma are more likely to develop one themselves.
Although lipomas are benign and harmless, it is always best to have unusual growths or lumps assessed and diagnosed by a healthcare professional. This is especially important with lipomas because they can resemble liposarcoma, rare cancer that should be caught early and will require treatment.
What Are the Symptoms of a Lipoma?
Lipomas are soft, oval-shaped lumps that grow beneath the skin. They can be doughy or rubbery in texture, and they will move readily under gentle pressure. Some lipomas can also be lobulated or bumpy.
All lipomas are ‘encapsulated’, which means that the cells are unable to spread and will not invade the surrounding tissue. Consequently, lipomas are benign and harmless tumours.
Lipomas do not contain fluid. If a lump on your skin appears to be packed with liquid, it is not a lipoma and should be assessed by a healthcare provider.
In most cases, a lipoma will not produce any other symptoms. However, patients may experience pain or tenderness if the lump begins to press upon a nearby nerve. Similarly, a lipoma may cause pain if it is an angiolipoma (a lipoma that contains many blood vessels).
What Causes a Lipoma to Grow?
Experts do not yet fully understand what causes lipomas to form. However, it is suspected that there is a genetic reason for the growth of lipomas, since they tend to run in families.
Moreover, there is also some evidence to suggest that an injury can trigger the growth of a lipoma.
The formation of a lipoma – or several lipomas – can also be the symptom of an underlying health condition. For example, Madelung’s disease is a disorder which can cause lipoma cysts to grow around the neck and shoulders. Similarly, Dercum’s disease is a rare condition which can cause painful lipomas to form around the abdomen, arms and legs.
Types of Lipoma:
Lipomas are categorised according to the type of tissue inside them. Here are some of the most common types:
A conventional lipoma is made up solely of white fat cells. This is the type of fat that stores energy.
As its name suggests, a fibrolipoma consists of both fibrous and fatty tissue.
An angiolipoma has blood vessels running through it, and can be painful as a result.
Unlike other types of lipoma, a hibernoma contains brown fat cells. Brown fat heats the body and helps to regulate body temperature. Hibernomas are much more uncommon than conventional lipomas.
Whilst conventional lipomas consist of fat cells of the same size, pleomorphic lipomas are made up of fat cells of many different shapes and sizes.
Spindle Cell Lipomas:
The fat cells in a spindle cell lipoma are long and pointed, like a spindle.
Unlike conventional lipomas, the fat cells within a myelolipoma produce white blood cells.
Treatment for Lipomas:
Lipoma cysts do not disappear on their own, so they have to be treated in order to go away. Nevertheless, as lipomas are benign and non-cancerous, it is not necessary to have them removed. However, they can be unsightly and bothersome, particularly when they grow in a prominent position, such as on the forehead. Furthermore, lipomas can sometimes be painful, in which case it is best to have them removed.
The most effective and straightforward way to treat a lipoma is to have it removed surgically.
Lipoma Removal Surgery:
During this procedure, a local anaesthetic is used to minimise discomfort. If the lipoma is very large or deep, then it is possible that a general anaesthetic will be used, though this is very uncommon.
Your surgeon will use a pen to mark out the areas in which the incisions need to be made during the surgery. Then, they will use a scalpel to cut the lipoma out of the skin. This will create a hole, which will be stitched closed, and a bandage may also be applied to prevent bleeding. The stitches will be removed after roughly 10 to 14 days.
It takes approximately 20 to 45 minutes to complete the surgery, and patients can return to their normal, daily activities as soon as it is done.
If the lipoma has not yet been examined, then the lump may be sent to a laboratory for examination, in order to rule out the risk of cancer.
Common Lipoma Removal questions
What Happens If A Lipoma Is Left Untreated?
Lipomas are non-cancerous and harmless, so they will not pose a risk to your health if they are left untreated. Nevertheless, they can grow larger over time, making them more noticeable or bothersome.
When Should I Worry About A Lipoma Cyst?
If a doctor has confirmed that the lump on your skin is definitely a lipoma, then there is never any cause to worry. Lipomas are benign tumours, and so they pose no threat to your health. However, if the lump is causing you pain, embarrassment or frustration, then it is best to have it treated.
How Long Does It Take To Recover From Lipoma Removal Surgery?
Lipoma removal is a minor surgical procedure, so minimal aftercare is required. It will take roughly 10 to 14 days for the wound to heal, after which time the stitches will be removed. Aside from this, no downtime is needed, and patients can return to their normal activities immediately after the treatment. Nevertheless, it is a good idea to avoid strenuous exercise for a week after any surgical procedure.
Can Lipomas Come Back After They Have Been Removed?
Although it is possible, it is very unlikely for a lipoma to return after it has been removed surgically. However, if the growth does recur, it can be excised again.
Is Lipoma Removal Surgery Painful?
A local anaesthetic is used during lipoma removal surgery. Consequently, the procedure is not painful, though it can be somewhat uncomfortable.
What Are The Side-Effects Of Lipoma Removal Surgery?
All forms of surgery come with a very small risk of infection at the surgical site. Similarly, it is possible for some redness or swelling to appear in the treatment area after the procedure, but these symptoms should disappear within 4 to 7 days.
Can I Remove A Lipoma At Home?
No, lumps or bumps on the skin should never be removed at home. This is because they must be tested for cancer in a laboratory. Furthermore, even if a doctor has confirmed that the lump on your skin is a non-cancerous lipoma, you should not try to remove cyst at home, as this is likely to cause an infection.
Is A Lipoma A Cyst?
Although lipomas are sometimes called ‘lipoma cysts’, they are not actually cysts in the technical sense. A cyst is a sac-like pocket underneath the skin that is filled with fluid, gas, or semi-solid material. If you squeeze a cyst, its contents will be discharged through a small hole on its surface.
By contrast, a lipoma is a benign tumour, which appears when fat cells multiply abnormally.
Unlike cysts, lipomas do not contain fluid or gas, and if you squeeze them, they will only move a little beneath the skin.
How Do You Differentiate A Lipoma From A Sebaceous/Epidermoid Cyst?
Lipomas and sebaceous cysts (also known as epidermoid cysts) look very similar, since they are both soft and slow-growing lumps beneath the skin, which move freely under gentle pressure. However, sebaceous cysts can be differentiated from lipomas by the small hole on their surface, called a central punctum. Lipomas do not have any marks or holes on their surface.
Ultimately, if you find an unusual lump of any kind on your skin, you should have it diagnosed by a medical professional. This will conclusively determine the nature of the lump and eliminate the risk of cancer.