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What’s That Lump? Identifying a Cyst or Lipoma

What’s That Lump? Identifying a Cyst or Lipoma

You recently discovered a small, symmetrical growth just beneath your skin. It’s painless and soft; pressing it with your finger feels “springy” and shifts slightly. After some sleuthing on the web, you’re sure you have a lipoma. Or wait, maybe it’s actually a cyst? 

Anytime you notice abnormal skin growth, it’s important to seek expert diagnosis and care. At Precision Surgery and Advanced Vein Therapy, board-certified general surgeon Dr. Johnny L. Serrano routinely evaluates and treats these two common growths.  

Read on to learn how lipomas and cysts are similar — and what makes them different. 

How lipomas and cyst lumps are similar

As two of the most common benign (noncancerous) subcutaneous growths (lumps that grow just beneath the skin surface), lipomas and cysts share many common qualities: Both are harmless, noninvasive, and slow-growing or completely stable (unchanging). 

While each of these growths has various subtypes, the average cyst and lipoma: 

Another thing lipomas and cysts have in common? Most don’t require treatment, but they can also be easily removed if they are located in an awkward or uncomfortable spot, cosmetically displeasing, or if they change and cause problems.

The distinguishing features of your lump 

For all their shared features, lipomas and cysts are defined by their many differences. These distinguishing attributes directly relate to what causes these lumps to form beneath the skin. Let’s take a closer look. 

Lipoma attributes 

A lipoma develops when subcutaneous fat cells gather into an abnormal mass, and that mass forms a round, fibrous capsule to encase itself. As this collection of fat cells slowly grows, the lipoma it creates pushes outward into an obvious lump. A typical lipoma:

Most lipomas are less than two inches in diameter, but some grow gradually larger as time passes. While these fatty lumps can appear anywhere, frequent growth sites include the neck, forehead, shoulders, back, abdomen, arms, or thighs. 

Cyst characteristics 

Skin cysts appear when surface skin cells don’t shed properly. With nowhere else to go, they migrate to deeper skin layers and begin multiplying. This abnormal skin cell action stimulates the formation of an enclosed sac — or cyst.

Once a cyst sac has formed, the stray skin cells inside it start secreting keratin, a vital skin protein with an oily texture. As keratin builds up within the sac, it forms a concentrated, yellowish paste that causes the cyst to swell into a noticeable lump. A typical skin cyst:

The dark “plug” that marks the center of a typical cyst may also ooze keratin, much like an acne pimple at the point of eruption. This tiny central opening makes a cyst lump more vulnerable to infection. 

Skin cysts can appear anywhere but most likely form on the face, neck, and torso. A pilonidal cyst is a common subtype that develops along the buttocks crease.  

Expert evaluation for your abnormal lump 

Anytime you notice an abnormal lump on your body — even if it’s not painful or otherwise bothersome — it’s important to have an expert take a look at it as soon as possible. 

Often, skin lumps that are small, soft, and “squishy” turn out to be either a lipoma or a cyst, and you may even be able to tell which you have by the shape and hue of your growth or by the existence (or lack) of a dark plug at its center.   

If Dr. Serrano determines that you have a lipoma or cyst, he may recommend one of two possible courses of action: Watchful waiting for any lump that doesn’t bother you and isn’t susceptible to infection or minimally invasive surgical removal for any lump that: 

Do you have a lump that needs to be diagnosed? Our board-certified general surgeon in Glendale, Arizona, can help. Call 623-321-5663 or click online to schedule a visit with Dr. Serrano at Precision Surgery and Advanced Vein Therapy today. 


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