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What is Cellulite?

By Dr Ananya Mandal, MD

Cellulite is a condition that is characterized by a dimpling, puckering or “orange peel” appearance of the skin that is most commonly seen on the thighs and buttocks. Cellulite is seen in areas where fat is typically distributed underneath the skin.

The medical terms for cellulite include dermopanniculosis deformans, adiposis edematosa, status protrusus cutis and gynoid lipodystrophy.

Around 85% to 98% of mature females have some degree of cellulite and although the condition is harmless, it sometimes causes cosmetic concerns. Men also develop cellulite but it is usually only seen in those with deficiencies of male hormones. Men with Klinefelter’s syndrome, hypogonadism or those taking estrogen therapy for prostate cancer are more at risk of developing cellulite, for example.

Clinical symptoms

Body areas where fat is typically deposited such as the outer thighs, back of the thighs and buttocks are more commonly affected by cellulite but it may also be found on the breasts, upper arms, nape of the neck and lower abdomen.

The region affected by cellulite takes on a dimpled or “puckered” appearance and is often said to resemble the pitted effect of orange peel. Caucasian women are more likely to develop cellulite than Asian women.

Treatments

There are numerous therapies that have claimed to be effective at resolving cellulite, although the claims are not well supported by scientific evidence. Recommendations for the prevention and treatment of cellulite include:

  • Prevention of aggravating factors – Stress, weight gain, sedentary lifestyle and hormonal contraceptive pills are factors that may aggravate cellulite. Although losing weight loss will not necessarily reduce cellulite, maintaining a healthy body weight can minimize its appearance.
  • Physical and mechanical approaches – Massages and suction devices have been used in cellulite treatment since the 1970’s. The suction devices are said to help mobilize subcutaneous fat by kneading the fat between two rollers and breaking it up. There is, however, little evidence of success with this method which is called endermologie.

Another method that is more successful is liposuction, although the cellulite often returns at a later stage and the procedure is therefore not a recommended treatment for cellulite.

Subcision is a surgical method performed in the treatment of cellulite. A cutting tool is used to cut the connective tissue that lies beneath the skin in order to stop it creating dimples. The procedure is one of the most invasive methods available and research to support the procedure is minimal.

Phosphatidylcholine injections, also known of as lipolysis injections are promoted by some companies which claim that the treatment breaks down fat cells and provides an alternative to liposuction. However, no peer-reviewed research supports that this method is comparable to liposuction.

  • Medications – When applied as a cream or lotion, aminophylline is said to reduce the appearance of cellulite by tightening the skin that covers fat deposits, although no published studies support that the treatment is effective at doing this. Retinol has been found to reduce the appearance of cellulite in some studies. Retinol-containing cream used over a period of two or three months can make the fat less obvious but people with cellulite are still advised to engage in physical exercise and maintain a healthy diet as the optimal approach to reducing cellulite.
  • Laser therapy – This is the most advanced and probably one of the most effective methods of treating cellulite. One new system is the VelaSmooth system (Syneron Inc, Richmond Hill, Ontario, Canada) which combines near-infrared light at a wavelength of 700 nm with continuous wave radiofrequency and mechanical suction.

Another system is the TriActive Laserdermology (Cynosure Inc, Chelmsford, MA, USA) which is approved by the US Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) for the treatment of cellulite. This combines six near-infrared diode lasers at a wavelength of 810 nm along with cooling and massage.

Reviewed by , BSc

Further Reading

Last Updated: Feb 6, 2014

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