What is Lymphedema?

The lymphatic system’s function is to collect waste products, bring them to the lymph nodes, and filter them with cells called lymphocytes. However, when a person has Lymphedema, the lymph vessels are damaged or obstructed, which causes fluid retention and swelling. There are two kinds of lymphedemas: primary and secondary.

Primary lymphedema, or hereditary lymphedema, is a rarer congenital condition, while secondary lymphedma can be caused by infections or unidentifable damage to a previously healthy lymphatic system. For instance, secondary lymphedema can often occur after a person is treated for cancer”ā€¯especially breast cancers. Radiation therapies or lymph node surgery can also cause scar tissue to build up and affect the lymphatic system.

What are the Symptoms of Lymphedema?

Lymphedema’s main symptom is swelling, especially in the hands, feet, legs, and arms. Other signs include fibrosis, tightness in the skin, a restricted range of motion, or infections that keep coming back.

Lymphedema Causes

Lymphedema is usually caused by lymph vessels that lose the ability to properly drain lymph fluid from your leg or arm. Primary lymphedema occurs on its own and secondary lymphedema is caused by another condition or disease, usually some type of condition that causes damage to your lymph nodes or lymph vessels, such as infection, radiation treatment for cancer, surgery or cancer itself.

Parasites, or infections of the lymph nodes restrict the flow of lymph fluid. Cancer causes lymphedema by blocking lymphatic vessels. Sometimes a tumor growing near a lymph node or lymph vessel can grow large enough to block the flow of lymph fluid.

The most common causes of primary lymphedema are late-onset lymphedema (lymphedema tarda), Meige’s disease (lymphedema praecox), and Milroy’s disease (congenital lymphedema). Late-onset lymphedema usually occurs after age 35. Meige’s disease occurs most commonly during pregnancy or puberty, but it can occur later in life, up until age 35. Milroy’s disease usually develops in infancy.

How is Lymphedema Treated?

Although lymphedema cannot be cured, it is a manageable condition. Compression treatments can be used, which is a form of therapy where specially designed garments and stocking are worn on the limbs to increase lymph flow, increase mobility, and reduce swelling.

A lymphatic massage can also improve symptoms, since massage therapists experienced in this therapy are able to figure out areas of obstruction and increase lymphatic flow. Regular exercise and a good skin care regimen can also help those with lymphedema.

Lymphedema Prevention

You can reduce your risk of getting lymphedema by protecting your arms and legs from injury. Cuts, burns and scrapes are perfect environments for infection. Therefore, it’s recommended that you keep them clean and covered. Protecting yourself from sharp objects by using gloves when working with dangerous equipment or shaving with an electric razor can help prevent lymphedema.

You can also prevent the disease by avoiding heat on your arm or leg, avoiding tight clothing (or anything constricting), elevating your arm or leg, and keeping your arm or leg clean. Resting your arm or leg while recovering from cancer treatments is encouraged. Strenuous activity should be avoided completely until you’ve fully recovered.

You can also avoid lymphedema by wearing sunscreen with a high SPF, getting regular exercise, wearing insect repellant, wearing a thimble to protect against finger pricks, and wearing a compression sleeve when you travel by air. Wearing a lighter purse or bag can put less pressure on the arm and shoulder, reducing your risk of lymphedema.

Last Reviewed:
October 06, 2016
Last Updated:
March 13, 2018