Medical quality assurance by Dr. Albrecht Nonnenmacher, MD at April 14, 2016

A lipoma is a lump of fatty tissue that typically forms right under the skin, and can occur in about one percent of the population. The masses of fat are usually soft when touched, and can move easily when pressure is applied. There is normally not any pain felt with most of them when touched, and they are not cancerous.


Definition & Facts

A lipoma is usually a rather small lump, but they can grow larger. In most cases, a lipoma is rarely a problem that needs immediate medical attention, but the size may make other people notice them. Most people that develop them are between the ages of 40 and 60 years old.

There are several types of lipomas and some are more common in women, while other types are more common in men. Some of them will cause a lot of pain (angiolipoma); others will involve connective tissue, fat, and blood vessels. A neural fibrolipoma will put pressure on nerves. Other types of lipomas are named after the area of the body they grow in.

Symptoms & Complaints

Lipomas are usually seen or felt as a lump and that is when they are discovered. A doctor may also see one when performing a physical examination. In most cases, the lump is anywhere in size from about 0.4 inch to 1.2 inches in diameter. The most common locations are on the neck, shoulders, and back, but they can grow anywhere. The tumors are usually shaped like a dome and typically lie between the skin and the muscle tissue underneath. They are usually colorless and grow slowly.

If it forms deeper in the body, which is far less common, it can cause other problems, but it will not be visible. It can, for instance, put pressure on the organs or nerves, and cause other symptoms that will seem unrelated. One potential problem is that it could put pressure on the bowel and cause an intestinal obstruction. If it occurs in the throat, it could cause trouble swallowing or difficulty breathing.


The actual cause of a lipoma is not known, but because it often occurs in families, it is believed to be caused by genetic factors. If a parent or sibling has one or more, it is quite possible that other family members may get them too. Lipomas occur in women with about the same frequency as in men, though men are more likely to get multiple lipomas than women.

Although anyone is capable of developing a lipoma, they are rare in children. In cases of multiple lipomas in men, this is nearly always caused by many years of alcoholism or heavy alcohol consumption, but non-alcoholic women and men can develop them too. Lipomas also can just as easily form on someone who is lean or of normal weight as someone who is overweight. Some believe that a blow given to the body may also lead to a lipoma, but there seems to be little evidence of this. Some other diseases may also lead to the presence of a lipoma, including the following:

Diagnosis & Tests

When a lump appears on the skin, it is important to go to a doctor for an evaluation. A doctor is not likely to be able to tell whether it is a lipoma or a cancerous tumor simply by looking at it. This is going to lead to further tests in order to make sure. A sonogram (ultrasound) is apt to be performed first to take a look at the muscle underneath it.

Because there is a form of cancer that can look similar to a lipoma called liposarcoma, the doctor may order a few extra tests to be sure that it is not cancer. This will be especially true if it grows fast, does not move under the skin easily, and if it is painful. A large size and unusual appearance are additional reasons for further tests. Other tests may include a biopsy, a CT scan, or an MRI. Some of these tests may include the injection of a dye to enable doctors to more easily see what is there.

Treatment & Therapy

Lipomas are always benign. They are not known to become cancerous, and except in cases where pain is caused, lipomas are usually not removed or treated. In most cases, removing a lipoma may only happen if it is painful, becomes infected, affects an organ, or is just bothersome.

If surgery is undertaken, the lipoma will usually be removed in a doctor's office, or in outpatient surgery. A local anesthetic will be used, an incision will be made in the skin, and the fatty tissue will be removed. When completed, the surgeon will close the wound using stitches.

For an internal tumor, the surgery may need to be performed in an operating room using general anesthesia. Other forms of treatment may also be available. Some doctors may use steroids to reduce the size of the lipoma, and surgery may or may not follow.

Liposuction is another alternative. Once the lump is removed, it will not usually grow back. It is not going to go away unless it is removed. Liposuction may result in some color changes in the skin, and possibly some dimpling. The fat in the lipoma may not all be removed, making it slightly possible that it could grow again.

Prevention & Prophylaxis

Obesity, drinking large amounts of alcohol of any kind, and not having diabetes under control may all contribute to the development of lipomas. Therefore, maintaining a healthy diet, getting regular exercise, abstaining from alcohol, and controlling a diabetic condition may reduce the likelihood of developing lipomas.

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