Lipomas are soft, fatty lumps that grow under the skin. They're harmless and can usually be left alone if they're small and painless.

Lipomas are non-cancerous (benign) and are caused by an overgrowth of fat cells. They can grow anywhere in the body where there are fat cells, but are usually seen on the:

  • shoulders
  • neck
  • chest
  • arms
  • back
  • buttock
  • thigh

They feel soft and "doughy" to touch and range from the size of a pea to a few centimetres across. They grow very slowly and don't usually cause any other problems.

Occasionally, lipomas can develop deeper inside the body, so you won't be able to see or feel them.

Who gets lipomas

Lipomas are fairly common, with about one in 100 people developing them. It's unusual to develop more than one or two lipomas, unless you have a rare inherited condition called familial multiple lipomatosis, which causes lipomas to develop all over the body.

When to see your GP

You should see your GP if you develop a growth or swelling on your body. They can examine it and confirm whether it's a lipoma.

When a lipoma is pressed, it should feel smooth and soft, like rubber or dough. It may move about under the skin.

If there's any doubt, your GP may recommend that you have an ultrasound scan, a biopsy or that the lump is removed altogether. They may also refer you to a specialist centre if the lump isn't typical of a harmless lipoma.

You should also see your GP if you have a lump that:

  • is getting bigger
  • is painful
  • feels hard 
  • grows back after it's been removed

In this case, your doctor will want to rule out other types of lump, such as a sarcoma (a very rare type of soft tissue cancer). You can read more about different types of soft tissue sarcoma on the Cancer Research UK website. 

Getting a lipoma removed

Lipomas don't usually need to be removed unless they're causing problems, such as pain, or if there's uncertainty about whether it's a lipoma.

You may want your lipoma removed if it's large or in an obvious place and it's affecting your self-esteem. However, you may have to pay for this privately.

Removing a lipoma under these circumstances is regarded as cosmetic surgery, which is rarely available through the NHS. The NHS will usually only fund cosmetic surgery if the problem is affecting your physical or mental health.

Some privately practicing GPs can remove lipomas. Alternatively, you can have the procedure carried out in hospital as a day patient (meaning you won't need to stay overnight).

Small lipomas can be removed, with local anaesthetic used to numb the area. The doctor will cut the skin over the lump and remove the lipoma, before closing the wound with stitches. After the wound has healed, you'll be left with a thin scar.

Lipoma or cyst?

A cyst is a sac under the skin that contains fluid and can look like a lipoma. Here's how to tell the difference:

  • cysts are close to the skin surface, whereas lipomas are deeper under the skin
  • cysts are firm to the touch, whereas lipomas are soft, mobile and dough-like
  • with certain cysts, the skin may be inflamed (red and swollen), but it isn't with lipomas

An ultrasound scan can easily identify lipomas and cysts. If your lipoma is bigger than a golf ball (5cm or about 2 inches) and painful, ask your GP to arrange an ultrasound scan and refer you to a specialist centre. 

Page last reviewed: 16/01/2015

Next review due: 16/01/2017