Lymphedema: Causes, Symptoms and Treatment

Lymphedema is a condition that occurs when lymphatic fluid builds up in limbs, primarily in the arms and legs, due to missing, damaged, weakened or removed lymph vessels or lymph nodes. This causes swelling in the affected area. One main cause of lymphedema happens after having a lymphadenectomy (a surgery to remove the lymph nodes). In order for the immune system to work properly, normal lymph drainage needs to occur: the filtration of fluid through the lymph nodes to trap bacteria, viruses and other harmful substances - all of which are destroyed by lymphocytes (special white blood cells). Lymphedema is the result when too much fluid that is not drained accumulates in an affected limb.

Lymphedema Symptoms

  • Swelling in the arms, legs, hands, fingers, and shoulders
  • When clothing and other attire such as watches, rings, and bracelets start feeling tight; especially when felt by one extremity
  • Lose flexibility in wrists, hands and ankles
  • Skin tightens

Lymphedema Treatment: Speak With a Health Professional before Getting Started

  • Wearing prescribed compression garments such as sleeves and stockings
  • Proper diet, skin care and draining of fluid
  • Elevating swollen limb, such as an arm or a leg, helps to drain the lymph fluid away from the affected area
  • Rest the affected limb above the heart and on a comfortable surface
  • Avoid pressure to the armpit or groin
  • Very mild exercise can help reduce swelling

Differences/Similarities to Edema

Lymphedema Edema
  • Lymphedema is the result of a damaged lymphatic system which causes swelling to occur near the affected area
  • Edema can be caused by having problems with the circulatory system, such as in chronic venous insufficiencies, which typically swells the lower parts of the body
  • Lymphedema occurs when an amount of lymphatic fluid in an area can not be removed by the lymphatic transport system due to the impairment of the lymphatic system: lymphatic fluid exceeds capacity of the lymphatic transport system to remove it
  • Edema occurs as a natural response to an injury or a sprain - during the healing process, excess fluid leaves the affected area and the swelling subsides
  • Lymphedema swelling originates after excess protein-rich fluid collects in the tissues
  • Edema is mainly caused by excess tissue fluid that has yet to return to the circulatory system
  • Lymphedema impaired tissues react to injury by having a slow healing process or serious infection
  • Edema caused by an injury happens when tissue fluid builds up into the affected area to help heal it
  • Lymphedema swelling leaves a mark after a finger presses on it, which is known as pitting edema - this only happens in the early stages of Lymphedema
  • Edema swelling does not leave a mark after a finger presses on it, which is known as nonpitting edema
  • Lymphedema when treated by diuretics is harmed and not helped
  • Edema can be relieved with diuretics
  • Lymphedema compression garments are medical grade and prescribed by medical professionals because of their extremely high compression range
  • Both conditions should not be self diagnosed and brought to the attention of a medical professional
  • Lymphedema usually requires a patient to be referred to a specialist
  • Both Lymphedema and Edema can coexist

For more information about Lymphedema visit: National Lymphedema Network, Lymphatic Research Foundation and Lymphedema People

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