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What is Dercum Disease?

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  • Written By: Karyn Maier
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 11 September 2016
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Dercum disease, also known as Adiposis Dolorosa, is characterized by the development of benign fatty tumors called lipomas. Generally, these tumors are soft and painful to the touch, and usually small in size. However, in rare cases, lipomas associated with Dercum disease have been known to grow quite large. In fact, some have been found to weigh up to 5 kilograms (11 pounds) upon removal.

While Dercum disease may occur in men and women of all ages, it is more commonly seen in female adults between 40 and 60 years of age. The fatty tumors associated with this disease most frequently develop just under the skin of the legs, arms, and torso. For reasons unknown, these tumors do not usually develop in the facial region or on the hands.

The exact cause of Dercum disease also remains a mystery, although research indicates that there is a genetic predisposition associated with this disease. In fact, there is a strong indication that it is easily passed in females from mother to daughter, possibly extending several generations. While this disease was once thought to be a metabolic disorder, it is now considered an autoimmune disorder.

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There is a definite link between Dercum disease and the onset of obesity. The reason for this is unclear, but many researchers suspect that impaired movement due to pain may be a contributing factor. The pain is caused by the fatty tumors causing pressure on the nerves in the region and can be quite severe and debilitating, even when the patient is at rest or asleep. In women, pain tends to increase during menstruation. Most patients also typically experience a feeling of general weakness.

A variety of other symptoms may occur that may seem completely unrelated to the presence of lipomas. For instance, depression, confusion, forgetfulness, and difficulty concentrating are common to Dercum disease patients. Stiffness, numbness, headaches, skin sensitivity to clothing or warm weather, and a tendency to bruise easily are also common symptoms. In addition, some patients report feeling consistently hot, which is usually due to enduring a low-grade fever for extended periods of time.

Diagnosis of this disease primarily relies on a thorough interview with the patient. In fact, there is no specific test for Dercum disease, although certain tests may be performed to rule out other conditions. Blood tests that indicate an over active immune system help to support a diagnosis in conjunction with symptoms reported by the patient.

The typical course of treatment of this disease is aimed at reducing symptoms with anesthetic and analgesic drugs. In some cases, these medications may be delivered intravenously. Surgical removal of lipomas helps some patients. However, relief is sometimes only temporary since there is a tendency for these tumors to reoccur.

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