Dercum’s disease is a rare connective tissue disorder. A person with the condition develops growths of fatty tissue, or lipomas, that can cause pain when they press on nerve cells or other organs in the body.

Doctors do not know what causes the condition, but genetics may play a role. In most cases, Dercum’s disease occurs spontaneously.

Typically, people may experience pain, tiredness, and brain fog. Treatment focuses on relieving the symptoms, as no specific treatment is available to cure the disease.

Keep reading to learn more about Dercum’s disease, including its symptoms, treatment, and outlook.

A note about sex and gender

Sex and gender exist on spectrums. This article will use the terms “male,” “female,” or both to refer to sex assigned at birth. Click here to learn more.

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Dercum’s disease causes multiple, painful growths to occur throughout the body. The growths, or lipomas, are benign fatty tumors that occur due to an overgrowth of fat cells.

The lipomas can form in any part of the body and range from pea-sized to plum-sized growths. Most commonly, they appear in the trunk, upper arms, and upper legs. They rarely appear in a person’s head, neck, hands, or feet.

The growths can form just below the surface of the skin. However, some lipomas grow deeper inside the body, with connective tissue linking them to bones, muscles, tendons, or ligaments.

Other names for the condition are:

  • adiposis dolorosa
  • Anders’ syndrome
  • Dercum-Vituat syndrome

The condition typically affects females aged 35–50 who have obesity. Dercum’s disease can also occur in males, although it is less common.

Females are 5–30 times more likely to develop Dercum’s disease than males. It can affect people of any age but is rare in children.

In some people, the lipomas cause mild discomfort when pressed, while others may experience severe pain. The signs and symptoms of Dercum’s disease are similar to those seen in fibromyalgia.

Researchers have not yet found out why Dercum’s disease causes pain. It may be due to the growths pressing on nerve cells or inflammation of the fascia. Fascia is the thin layer of connective tissue surrounding organs within the body.

Although the pain itself varies, it may have the following characteristics:

  • lasts for hours
  • occurs at certain times or suddenly
  • is continuous
  • worsens with movement

A person may also experience brain fog or fatigue during a pain flare-up.

Other symptoms of Dercum’s disease may include:

Doctors do not know the exact cause of Dercum’s disease, but inflammation may play a key role in its development.

A person may develop Dercum’s disease due to:

  • Familial multiple lipomatosis: This is a rare condition in which a person develops multiple lipomas on their trunk, legs, and arms. One or more people in a family with this genetic trait may develop Dercum’s disease.
  • Angiolipoma: Small, benign, rubbery tumors with blood vessels growing under the skin are known as angiolipomas.
  • Healing disorder: This occurs when inflammation in the body causes widespread lipomas in the fatty tissue under the skin, particularly around the ribs and joints.

Other possible causes of Dercum’s disease include:

  • endocrine system dysfunction, which can cause hormone levels to be irregular
  • disordered fat metabolism, the process by which the body breaks down and uses fat for fuel
  • high dose corticosteroids or anti-inflammatory medications
  • infections such as Lyme disease or valley fever

Research has linked Dercum’s disease to a range of other health conditions, including:

Dercum’s disease is underdiagnosed, so researchers do not know how frequently it occurs in the general population.

A doctor diagnoses a person with Dercum’s disease based on their medical history and the assessment of their symptoms in a clinic. The doctor may refer the person to a specialist to confirm the diagnosis.

The person will also have multiple lipomas, which are the primary feature of the condition. The doctor may order a biopsy to confirm whether the fatty tissue growths are due to Dercum’s disease.

Doctors may also use imaging tests such as CT or MRI scans to aid the diagnosis process.

Other conditions

Some conditions may be mistaken for Dercum’s disease. For example, lipedema, which causes painful fatty growths under the skin, shares many clinical features with Dercum’s disease. A specialist would be able to differentiate the two.

Other disorders related to, but different from, Dercum’s disease include:

  • Madelung’s disease, which causes the abnormal buildup of fatty deposits around the neck, shoulders, upper arms, and upper back
  • fibromyalgia, which causes muscular pain throughout the body and persistent bouts of fatigue
  • familial multiple lipomatosis, which causes multiple growths of fatty tissue to form, most commonly on the trunk, arms, and upper leg, and can lead to Dercum’s disease

There is no cure for Dercum’s disease. Treatment focuses on helping individuals manage their symptoms, especially pain. Treatment usually includes:

  • medication for pain relief, such as analgesics, although they may have a limited effect
  • surgery for painful lipomas, especially if they cause numbness or tingling
  • liposuction, in cases of extreme, debilitating pain
  • following a balanced diet and exercising regularly
  • counseling or psychotherapy to help cope with long-term pain and its effects

Learn more about eating a balanced diet and maintaining a healthy body weight.

People should note, however, that some medications and surgery may only provide temporary relief.

Some people also try alternative therapies, such as:

Below are some commonly asked questions and answers about Dercum’s disease.

Is Dercum’s disease hereditary?

Genetics may play a role in the development of Dercum’s disease. There are reports of multiple cases occurring in the same family.

Most cases occur sporadically.

Is it an autoimmune condition?

Some researchers suggest that Dercum’s disease is an autoimmune condition in which the body mistakenly attacks its own healthy cells. However, there is no firm evidence to support this.

Which healthcare professionals treat Dercum’s disease?

A doctor may refer a person to various specialists during the diagnosis process. These specialists will be able to provide key information about what is causing symptoms and possible treatment options that may be beneficial.

The team of healthcare professionals may include dermatologists, nutritionists, and neurologists.

Dercum’s disease is a rare, underdiagnosed disorder of the fat tissue. It causes fatty growths to develop underneath the skin or, in some cases, deeper inside the body.

Doctors do not know the exact cause of Dercum’s disease, but it may be due to inflammation, infection, corticosteroid use, or injury.

Treatment focuses on individual symptom management, including pain relief, as there is no cure for the condition.