Lymphedema refers to the abnormal buildup
of lymph that causes swelling. Lymph is a fluid that contains white blood cells
to defend against germs. The condition develops because of the damage or
removal of lymph vessels or lymph nodes. Usually, it affects the arms or legs,
but it can happen in other parts of your body as well.
Throughout the world, lymphedema is most
commonly caused by filariasis (a parasite infection), but in the United States,
lymphedema most commonly occurs in women who have had breast cancer surgery,
particularly when followed by radiation treatment.
Types & Causes
Generally, there are two types of lymphedema:
primary and secondary lymphedema.
lymphedema is a rare, inherited condition caused by
problems with the development of lymph vessels in your body. Specific causes of
this type of lymphedema include:
- Milroy’s disease (congenital lymphedema).
This disorder begins in infancy and causes
lymph nodes to form abnormally.
- Meige’s disease (lymphedema praecox).
This condition often causes lymphedema
around puberty or during pregnancy, though it can occur later until 35 years
- Late-onset lymphedema (lymphedema tarda).
This occurs rarely and usually begins after
the age of 35.
lymphedema results from a blockage in your
lymphatic system, which is part of your immune system. The blockage prevents
lymph fluid from draining well, and the fluid buildup leads to swelling. Risk
factors for this type of lymphedema include:
- Infection of the lymph nodes or parasites, restricting the flow of lymph
- Radiation treatment for cancer
- Cancer, which can block lymphatic vessels
- Surgical removal of lymph nodes
- Inherited conditions in which lymph nodes or vessels are absent or
- Older age
- Rheumatoid or psoriatic arthritis
The most common symptom of lymphedema is swelling in one or both arms or legs.
This swelling can extend into the fingers or toes and usually develops
gradually over time. Other signs and symptoms include:
- Aching or discomfort in the affected limb
- A feeling of heaviness or tightness
- Restricted range of motion
- Recurring infections
- Hardening and thickening of the skin
Based on your symptoms and risk factors in
you, like recent cancer surgery involving your lymph nodes, your doctor can
make a diagnosis of lymphedema. If the underlying cause is not clear, your
doctor may order some lab tests to help diagnose. These tests include:
This is done by injecting radioactive
material and then scanned by a machine. The resulting images can help the doctor
detect blockages or missing lymph vessels.
- MRI scan.
Using a magnetic field and radio waves, this
test can produce 3-D, high-resolution images.
- CT scan.
This X-ray technique produces detailed,
cross-sectional images of your body’s structures to reveal blockages in the
- Doppler ultrasound.
This l ultrasound looks at blood flow and
pressure by bouncing high-frequency sound waves (ultrasound) off red blood
cells. It can help find obstructions.
There exists no cure for lymphedema. Treatment
options are targeted towards reducing the swelling and controlling the pain.
Effective methods include:
- Elastic sleeves or stockings
- Bandages to help lymph fluid flow back toward the limb
- Compression garments, such as fabric sleeves, to apply pressure to
the affected limb to help lymph fluid circulate
- Exercise to encourage lymph fluid drainage and help prepare you for
A specially trained professional can do light massage to help move fluid from areas of swelling to other areas. You can even learn how to use these massage techniques on yourself.