Everything You Need To Know About Dercum’s Disease

If you’re a middle-aged woman and have started developing multiple painful growths of fatty tissue, you may be suffering from a rare disorder called Dercum’s disease. The fatty tissue growths, known as lipomas, primarily show up in the trunk, upper arm, and upper leg regions and develop just under the skin. They are usually accompanied by severe pain, which results from the lipomas pressing against nearby nerves. This condition, which also goes by the name adiposis dolorosa (painful fat), is considered an extreme version of a condition called lipedema.

Here’s everything you need to know about this painful but rare condition.


Types Of Dercum’s Disease

Depending on the area of pain, Dercum’s is categorized into 3 different types:

  • The juxta-articular type, which causes pain near the joints and mainly affects the knees1
  • The diffuse, generalized type, which causes widespread pain2
  • The lipomatosis (nodular) type, which causes pain in and around the multiple lipomas, with or without general obesity3

Symptoms Of Dercum’s Disease

Dercum’s disease has the following 4 basic symptoms:

  • Multiple, painful fatty masses
  • Generalized obesity
  • Weakness and fatigue
  • Mental disturbances like emotional instability, depression, confusion, dementia, and epilepsy

In most cases, pain worsens with movement and symptoms develop sporadically. The pain is chronic and lasts for over 3 months.4

The following are also sometimes associated with the disease:5

  • Joint pain
  • Tremors
  • Cyanosis (blue skin discoloration)
  • Hypertension
  • Headaches
  • Nosebleeds
  • Sudden flushing
  • Early congestive heart failure

Causes Of Dercum’s Disease

Like many rare disorders, the causes of Dercum’s are poorly understood. Experts speculate that it might be
related to:6

  • Disrupted endocrine function
  • Corticosteroid use
  • An autoimmune problem
  • Genetics

In a 2012 review, researchers found 5 cases of inherited Dercum’s. But, for the most part, cases are sporadic and only one person is affected in the family.7


Risk Factors For Dercum’s Disease

Dercum’s might be mysterious, but there are some common traits among patients:8

  • Age between 45 and 60
  • Female
  • Post-menopausal
  • Overweight or obese

Dercum’s is 5–30 times more common in women than men according to a 2012 review.9


Diagnosis Of Dercum’s Disease

Because Dercum’s disease is so rare, its diagnosis can take a while. Many doctors even tend to brush it off as a side effect of obesity or a sedentary lifestyle.10 So, diagnosis often comes down to elimination. Dercum’s looks similar to diseases like Madelung’s disease, Cushing’s syndrome, fibromyalgia, congenital lipomatosis, and familial lipomatosis syndrome. Pain and various test results are major differentiating factors. For example, Cushing’s syndrome manifests as low levels of the adrenocorticotropic hormone but patients with Dercum’s disease will have perfectly normal levels of the hormone.11 An MRI can also help guide the diagnosis.12

Treatment Options For Dercum’s Disease

There is no cure for Dercum’s disease. Instead, treatment focuses on alleviating symptoms. Depending on the severity of the disease, treatment options may include:13

  • Weight reduction
  • Liposuction
  • Surgical removal
  • Pain medication

It’s vital to note that the lipomas usually grow back even after surgery.14

Tips For Pain Management

Aside from medication, psychotherapy and pain specialists may help ease the symptoms.15 To avoid making things worse, the following should also be avoided:

  • Intense exercise
  • Strenuous physical therapy
  • Repetitive movements
  • Poor sleeping habits
  • Steroids
  • Trauma
  • Surgery
  • Physical and mental stress
  • Poor diet

For best results, consult a doctor for guidance on lifestyle changes and pain management.16