Find your local lymphedema clinic by searching the "clinics" page.View all clinics
Lymphedema arises when a transparent liquid called lymphatic-fluid accumulates in the soft tissues of the body, generally in the arms or legs. The lymphatic system includes lymph-vessels and lymph-nodes that stream through the body. Lymph vessels transmit this fluid consisting of wastes, fats, water, and protein from the cells of the body. Lymph-vessels transfer this fluid to the lymph nodes, and in turn, filter the waste materials and return the fluid to the blood. If the vessels or nodes are injured or missing, the lymph-fluid cannot travel liberally throughout the system. The fluids can accumulate and produce swelling. This swelling is known as lymphedema.
There are two types of lymphedema:
- Acquired lymphedema is occasionally called secondary-lymphedema and results from damage to the lymphatic system causing lymphedema. This type of lymphedema is much more widespread than primary lymphedema.
- Inherited lymphedema or primary lymphedema happens when a person is born with missing lymph-vessels and nodes. Swelling normally happens during a person’s adolescence and involves the calf or foot. Another rare type of primary lymphedema takes place during infancy and is known as Milroy’s disease.
Chronic lymphedema can last for a person’s entire lifetime and can be difficult to treat. Swollen appendages can become susceptible to infection as well. For example, a minor injury to the skin such as an insect bite, athlete’s-foot between the toes, a scratch, or cut, can lead to a severe infection that physicians call lymphangitis. Lymphangitis damages the connective-tissue beneath the skin. Recurrent infections can result in scarring that leaves the tissue vulnerable to more infections and swelling. Tissues can become hard, known as fibrosis, which is a sign of advanced chronic lymphedema.
The most well known causes of secondary-lymphedema are radiation treatment for specific types of cancer such as testicular and breast cancers in women, or surgery. Additional causes of lymphedema include surgical procedures such as liposuction, surgery on blood vessels in limbs, other surgical procedures, as well as burns.
Globally, lymphedema is frequently caused by a parasite infection or filariasis. However, in the United States, lymphedema frequently occurs in women after breast cancer surgery, especially after radiation treatments. It is estimated that globally, there are up to 250 million individuals suffering with lymphedema.
Lymphedema can be treated by raising the limb, systematic use of a lymphatic sleeve, and treatment with a pneumatic-sleeve to massages the limb. Physical therapy, weight loss, and exercise can also help. If an infection has occurred, antibiotics are administered or sometimes diuretics are used.
The frequency of lymphedema as a result of breast cancer treatment, radiation, or surgery varies from 10% to 40%. The incidence of invasive-cancer survivors in the United States at the beginning of the millennium has been estimated by the NCI, National Cancer Institute, to be 9.6 million, with 61% or 5.86 million over the age of 65. In addition, 20% occurrences of lymphedema affect the breast, neck, head, lower and upper limbs. However, this estimate does not include the possibility of an identical number of patients afflicted with lymphedema-secondary to recurring venous insufficiency.