Why some women’s legs keep getting bigger
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Hitting puberty, what troubled Laura Childs was not her skin, but her legs, which began to balloon completely out of proportion with the rest of her body.
‘It was much more exaggerated than just being pear-shaped,’ recalls Laura, 37.
‘I’d previously been very slim, but over two to three years my legs became up to two dress sizes bigger than my top half.
‘It was weird because I had slim ankles and feet — the fat formed a cuff above the knee and the ankle. The skin on my legs would bruise really easily, too — even if I just scratched an itch, my whole leg would bruise. My legs also swelled up in the heat and could be quite achy and painful.”
But when she was pregnant, Laura’s legs — particularly her calves — got even larger and more painful. ‘
She discovered the cause only after her sister lost 15 kg, but none from her legs — when her doctor diagnosed her and then Laura with lipoedema.
This is a common condition that affects only women and which causes abnormal amounts of fat to accumulate on the lower body (the legs, buttocks and hips although it sometimes also affects the arms).
The feet and hands are not affected, so the excess fat forms a distinctive ‘bracelet’, with fat overhanging the ankle, elbow or wrist.
It is a painful, often disabling, condition thought to affect up to one in ten women.
While the cause is not clear, it’s likely to be linked to hormones; in most cases the fat accumulation starts after puberty or other times of hormonal upheaval such as pregnancy or the menopause, and generally becomes progressively worse over time, causing increased pain and mobility problems. Women affected can lose weight only from their upper bodies — it’s not known why the fat does not respond to dieting.
As the condition tends to run in families, experts believe it has a genetic element, although some women don’t have a family history.
As the disease progresses, these women may have difficulty walking because of pressure on their joints from the weight, and may even need joint replacements.
Despite the number of women affected, the condition is poorly recognised.
One treatment for lipoedema is a form of liposuction known as tumescent liposuction — a specialised technique which must be carried out by surgeons who have specialist knowledge about the lymphatic system, so that it is not damaged during the procedure.
Liposuction is a permanent solution for lipoedema. Provided all the abnormal fat cells are removed, research shows that it recurs in only 2 per cent of cases.