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Looking for more info on lipomas

Dear Alice,

I have a lump on my neck and the biopsy indicates it is a lipoma. I looked it up and it is a tumor consisting primarily of fat cells. OK, that tells me a lot. Did that last can of Pringles park on my neck? What causes these? Should I be worried that it involves a lymph gland? It got REALLY big when I had an ear infection (that's when I first noticed it). Right now, the doctor is taking a "wait and see" attitude. Since it is benign, I'm not particularly worried about it — just wondering where I could find more information.

— TONY

Dear TONY, 

Way to take note of changes in your body! A lipoma is a benign tumor made up of fatty tissue, meaning that spot on your neck is a non-cancerous lump of fat cells. These lumps are the most common benign growth of soft tissue and generally do not become cancerous over time. They tend to be caused by infections or skin conditions, so it makes sense that you've noticed it getting worse with your ear infection. It’s unclear what exactly causes these lumps, but it’s unrelated to your lymph nodes and the food you ate is not likely to be the culprit.  

Lipomas are usually less than two inches in diameter and are located directly under the skin (between the skin and your muscles). They grow very slowly and are often soft, doughy, painless, and movable under the skin. Although they may occur anywhere on the body, lipomas are usually located on the chest, upper thighs, arms, neck, and shoulders. People of any age can develop lipomas, though they are more often seen among those between 40 to 60 years of age. 

Though the cause of lipomas is unclear, they do appear to run in families. Additionally, folks with certain medical conditions, including rare genetic ones such as adiposis dolorosa, Cowden syndrome, and Gardner syndrome are more likely to develop lipomas. Unless you are genetically predisposed, lipomas are unlikely a result of what you eat or related to weight. You mentioned that the lipoma increased in size with the onset of an ear infection. As your body works to fight off an infection, your lymph nodes can become inflamed; if your lipoma is located near a lymph node, that may be why the lipoma was larger when you first noticed it. 

If you notice what could be a lipoma on your body, it's recommended that you visit with a health care provider or dermatologist (as you've done). They can examine the lump in order to rule out other possibilities, such as liposarcoma (a rare, cancerous tumor composed of fatty tissue that's firmer in texture than a lipoma). If liposarcoma is suspected, a health care provider may do a biopsy before making a diagnosis. As long as the lipoma isn't causing you discomfort, you likely will not need treatment. However, if it hurts, grows, or impedes movement, the most common treatment is surgical removal. Other treatment options may include steroid injections to shrink the growth or liposuction to remove the fatty tissue. 

You're certainly taking steps in the right direction—you've sought a professional diagnosis, done a search for general information, and asked for more details. All that said, if your health care provider's "wait and see" attitude makes you uncomfortable, you may consider speaking with another provider for a second opinion. 

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Last updated Mar 10, 2023
Originally published Dec 06, 2002

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