Medically reviewed by: Ted Schiff, MD
What Is a Lipoma?
A lipoma is a benign tumor made of fat cells that creates a soft lump on the skin. Lipomas are usually small (less than 2 inches wide), but some can grow to 6 inches wide or larger. Most lipomas develop just below the skin, often on the arms, shoulders, neck, back or torso. In rare cases, they grow on the brain, internal organs or muscles. They are usually harmless.
Who Gets Lipomas?
Lipomas aren’t uncommon: About 1 in every 1,000 people will get one at some point in their life. The tumors can appear at any age but most often develop between ages 40 and 60. They are slightly more common in men.
What Causes a Lipoma?
Lipoma causes aren’t fully understood. Genetics is thought to play in a role in people who develop multiple lipomas, a rare condition called familial multiple lipomatosis, but most people with a lipoma have only one.
In some cases, lipomas may be a sign of a genetic syndrome such as Gardener syndrome, which causes multiple colon polyps, or Madelung’s disease, which causes unusual fat deposits in various areas of the body, especially the neck and shoulders (it’s most common in men who chronically overconsume alcohol).
Lipoma Risk Factors
You may be more likely to develop a lipoma if you have:
- High cholesterol
- Glucose intolerance
- Liver disease
- Soft tissue damage from an injury
What does a lipoma look like? It’s usually a symmetrical round or oval lump, and it feels soft and doughy. It may move when you press on it lightly. Some lipomas are tender to the touch, but most don’t cause pain unless they press on a nerve, they’re located in or near a joint or they contain blood vessels.
Removing a lipoma usually isn’t necessary unless it’s causing you discomfort or interferes with your mobility. Still, it’s important to see a dermatologist to confirm that the lump is in fact a lipoma and not something else, such as liposarcoma, a cancer that begins in the fat cells.
Most people who see a doctor for lipoma treatment do so for cosmetic reasons, since the lumps can be very noticeable.
Many lipomas can be excised (cut out) by a dermatologist or other doctor under local anesthesia. There is a risk of bruising and scarring, but if the lipoma is small, your doctor may be able to squeeze it out through a smaller incision, a technique called minimal excision extraction. If the lipoma is large or deep, you may need to see a different doctor and receive general anesthesia.
Lipomas can also be removed with liposuction. In this procedure, the doctor inserts a thin, hollow tube called a cannula into the lipoma to break up the fatty tissue. The tissue is then removed through the cannula with an attached syringe or surgical vacuum. Liposuction is more likely to be recommended for medium to large lipomas, though it may be performed on a small lipoma if it’s in a location where a scar would be noticeable.
Lipomas usually don’t recur in the same spot after they’re removed. However, there is a chance another one could grow in a different location.
If you’re wondering how to remove a lipoma yourself, the answer is, don’t. A lipoma is not something you can “pop” at home with a needle. A lipoma should always be removed by a dermatologist or other qualified medical provider.