What Are Lipomas?
A lipoma is a growth of fatty tissue that slowly develops just under your skin. People of any age can develop a lipoma, but children rarely develop them. While a lipoma can form on any part of the body, they typically appear on the neck, shoulders, back, abdomen, arms, and thighs. They are classified as benign growths (tumors) of fatty tissue; this means a lipoma is not cancerous and is rarely harmful.
Treatment is not necessary unless the lipoma is bothersome.
Causes of and Risk Factors for Development of Lipomas
The cause of lipomas is unknown. Your risk of developing this type of skin lump increases if you have a family history of lipomas.
According to the Mayo Clinic, this condition is most prevalent in adults between the ages of 40 and 60 (Mayo, 2012).
Certain preexisting conditions may also increase your risk of lipoma development. These include:
- adiposis dolorosa
- Cowden syndrome
- Gardner’s syndrome
- Madelung disease
Distinguishing a Lipoma from Other Skin Growths
There are many types of skin tumors, but a lipoma usually has distinct characteristics. If you suspect that you have a lipoma it will generally be:
- soft to the touch and move easily if prodded with your finger
- just under the skin
- pale or colorless
Lipomas are most commonly located in the neck, back, and shoulders, but they can also occur on the stomach, thighs, and arms. The lipoma is only painful if it grows into nerves underneath the skin.
Diagnosing a Lipoma
A lipoma may be diagnosed easily with a physical exam. This type of growth feels doughy and isn’t painful. Also, since it is made up of fatty tissues, the lipoma moves easily when touched.
In some cases, a dermatologist might take a biopsy of the lipoma. During this procedure, a small portion of the tissue is scraped and sent to a lab for testing. This test is done to rule out the possibility of cancer. Although a lipoma isn’t cancerous, some cases resemble that of a liposarcoma, which is malignant (i.e., cancerous). Unlike lipomas, liposarcomas are painful and grow quickly under the skin.
Further testing through MRIs and CT scans are only required if a biopsy shows that a suspected lipoma is in fact a liposarcoma.
A lipoma that is left alone usually doesn’t cause any problems. However, a dermatologist can treat the lump if it bothers you. Your dermatologist will make the best treatment recommendation based on a number of factors including:
- the size of lipoma
- the number of skin tumors you have
- your personal or family history of skin cancer
- whether the lipoma is painful
The most common way to treat a lipoma is to remove it through surgery. This is especially helpful if you have a large skin tumor that is still growing. Lipomas rarely grow back once they are surgically removed.
Another option is liposuction. Since lipomas are fat-based, this procedure can work well to reduce its size. Liposuction involves a needle attached to a large syringe, and the area is usually numbed before the procedure.
Steroid injections may also be used right on the affected area. This treatment can shrink the lipoma, but it doesn’t completely remove it.
Misconceptions about Lipomas
The American Cancer Society classifies lipomas as benign tumors. Tumors can be cancerous, but lipomas aren’t malignant. This means that there is no chance that an existing lipoma will spread. The condition will not spread through muscles or any other surrounding tissues. The condition isn’t deadly.
A lipoma can’t be reduced with self-care. Ice and heat packs may work for other types of skin lumps, but they are useless for lipomas because they are fat-based. If you have any concerns about getting rid of a lipoma, see your doctor for treatment.