In lipedema (also spelled lipoedema), the fat cells in certain parts of the body experience overgrowth and swelling. It results in an abnormal accumulation of fat, particularly in the lower half of the body; often the arms are affected too.
Traditional medical treatments have not been all that successful in treating lipedema, so many lipedema sufferers turn to alternative medicine as well. Many people seem to have the best success combining traditional treatments with alternative treatments.
These can include:
- Supplements and herbs
- Lymphatic Brushing
- Chinese Medicine
- Vibration Plates
- Detox Procedure
In the lymphedema community, treatment with acupuncture would be considered an absolute no-no.
When people have severe lymphedema after cancer treatments, for example, they have to carefully avoid anything that might injure the affected limb. Taking blood pressure or putting an IV in a lymphedema-affected arm can make the lymphedema FAR worse. And any holes, even very small ones, could be potential conduits for bacteria, and infections are a very real risk in lymphedema due to depressed immunity. So lymphedema patients are taught to NEVER let needles of any kind be put into an affected limb.
This lymphedema rule has been extrapolated to lipedema without knowing whether that restriction is true for lipedema. For one thing, acupuncture needles are extremely fine and don’t go in that far, so they probably do not represent the same degree of risk that a blood-draw or IV needles would pose. For another thing, until Stage 4, lipedema doesn’t present the same way as lymphedema or have the same risks. As a result, it’s hard to say how risky acupuncture might be for someone with lipedema.
It’s only anecdotal of course (from only one case!), but I personally have acupuncture treatments all the time, even in my lipedemic legs, and it does not seem to make things worse at all. Indeed, I find it helpful for easing much of the pain, muscle tightness, and other symptoms that go hand in hand with lipedema for me.
On the other hand, I have not found it effective for reducing a lipedemic flare or the edema I experienced after two of my children’s births. Personally, I don’t think it’s really an effective treatment for reducing edema, but it can be useful for some of the musculo-skeletal issues that can go along with an altered gait from lipedema. My acupuncturist also works on optimizing my thyroid function and minimizing PCOS symptoms, and it does seem to help that somewhat.
If you have Stage 4 lipo-lymphedema, then it seems sensible that acupuncture on the affected areas might be contraindicated. (I don’t have lipo-lymphedema, so perhaps this is why I can have acupuncture without problems.) However, acupuncturists can do “distal” points ─ points that are far away on unaffected areas, yet which can still treat the affected area. Some people are still not willing to risk even that much potential exposure to bacteria when they have lipo-lymphedema, and it’s easy to understand why they are cautious.
Bottom line, it seems to be a personal decision whether to try acupuncture, but I wouldn’t say across the board that it’s contraindicated ─ as long as you don’t have secondary lymphedema.
Although acupuncture can be expensive in a private clinic, there are community acupuncture clinics where group treatments are very affordable, and many Chinese Medicine schools also offer steeply discounted appointments. Even if your insurance doesn’t cover acupuncture, there may still be a way to afford treatment.
On the other hand, if you don’t feel comfortable using needles anywhere, then by all means avoid acupuncture. Just remember that if you are intrigued by the possibilities but don’t want needles, you can still receive acupressure in non-painful areas, or you can consult a Chinese medicine practitioner on herbs and other options as well.
Chinese Medicine views lipedema as having a “yin” constitution, or too much cold and damp, if I understand it correctly. The Spleen in particular is considered the source of the edema (not “spleen” in the traditional Western sense of a specific organ).
The Chinese Medicine approach uses herbs to help balance the constitution, suggests avoiding certain foods (soy, dairy, and others), suggests avoiding cold foods, using lots of dried ginger and certain other herbs, and getting plenty of exercise.
Personally, although I regularly receive acupuncture, I do not use much other Chinese Medicine. I have never found it particularly effective for me, and I’m too Western in my thinking to be comfortable with the concept of “qi” or “damp” or “Yin-yang.” I also am hesitant about using herbs without knowing a great deal about their efficacy, toxicity, or potential interactions.