If you’ve developed an abnormal lump just beneath the surface of your skin, you’re not alone — unexplained soft tissue growths are fairly common, especially among middle-aged people and older adults.
At Precision Surgery and Advanced Vein Therapy in Glendale, Arizona, our board-certified general surgeon Johnny L. Serrano, DO, FACOS, specializes in diagnosing and treating bothersome lumps and bumps, including benign lipomas.
Explore the features and traits that indicate your abnormal growth may be a lipoma, and learn what makes a lipoma different from other growths that can develop just below the skin.
Understanding soft tissue tumors
When cells become old, damaged, or impaired, your body replaces them with new, healthy cells that function properly. Occasionally, this routine process breaks down, and the abnormal cells that should die away erroneously begin to multiply and grow.
When abnormal cells divide and bind together in a mass, they form a tumor. Tumors can be malignant (cancerous) or benign (non-cancerous).
More common than bone tumors, soft tissue tumors can grow almost anywhere, including within or around blood vessels, connective tissues, nerves, muscles, and fat. Soft tissue tumors that form just beneath the skin surface often protrude outward, forming a visible lump.
Characteristics of a lipoma
A lipoma is a benign soft tissue tumor made of fat cells. It typically occurs in the subcutaneous fat layer that’s just below the skin, but can affect internal visceral adipose tissue layers, too.
As one of the most common non-cancerous tumors, lipomas often appear along the neck, shoulders, back, buttocks, abdomen, arms, or thighs. Less often, they may emerge on the face or hands or develop unseen within deeper fatty tissues.
The fat cells that cluster together to form a lipoma are contained by a thin, fibrous membrane that prevents them from invading nearby tissues and makes the formation look symmetrical.
Characteristics of a typical lipoma include:
- Soft, supple, or rubbery consistency
- Round or oval; dome-shaped
- Moves easily with slight pressure
- Small; less than one inch in diameter
- Stable in size or very slow growing
- Painless, unless it presses on nerves
While conventional lipomas — which mainly consist of mature white fat cells — share all or most of these features, distinct lipoma subtypes may have slightly different attributes. An angiolipoma, for example, may throb or cause discomfort because it contains fatty tissue and blood vessels.
Other soft tissue growths
To differentiate between lipomas and other soft tissue growths that may appear just beneath the skin, it’s important to know the characteristics of two other abnormal subcutaneous growths: benign cysts and malignant sarcomas.
Cysts are similar to lipomas in that they’re benign, soft, round, easy to move, stable or slow growing, and painless. But instead of containing fat cells, cysts are made up of concentrated epidermal cells that secrete keratin, a vital skin protein with an oily, cheese-like texture.
Unlike lipomas, however, most cysts are marked by a dark “plug” that oozes thick yellow keratin pus under pressure. Cysts typically appear on the face, neck, torso, or upper buttocks cleft. Compared to lipomas, they’re more likely to cause irritation or get infected.
Much rarer than benign lipomas and cysts, a malignant soft tissue sarcoma is also very different: this cancerous lump tends to be three to five times larger than the average lipoma, fast-growing, firm to the touch, motionless under pressure, and tender or painful. They typically appear on the arms, legs, or torso.
As a malignancy, sarcoma tumors tend to invade surrounding tissues as they grow. A cancerous sarcoma that starts in subcutaneous fat tissues — known as a liposarcoma — may initially present as a hard painless lump. As it grows, however, it may invade nearby nerves and cause persistent pain, tingling, or burning sensations.
Lipoma diagnosis and treatment
Whether it’s bothersome or not, you should always consult your primary care physician when you notice an abnormal lump or growth. Specialists like Dr. Serrano can also help — as an expert in lipomas, cysts, and other subcutaneous growths, he can usually diagnose a lipoma with a simple physical exam.
If there’s any doubt about the nature or extent of your soft tissue tumor, he may order diagnostic imaging (MRI or CT scan) to check its depth and features more closely, or take a tissue sample (biopsy) for lab examination.
If you’re diagnosed with lipoma, it probably won’t require treatment unless it bothers you or it continues to grow. In such cases, Dr. Serrano can remove the self-contained growth using minimally invasive surgical excision techniques.
To learn more about lipoma removal at Precision Surgery and Advanced Vein Therapy, call 602-393-1304 or use the easy online booking tool to schedule a visit with Dr. Serrano today.