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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. Lymphedema is more common in older individuals, especially those who are struggling with rheumatoid arthritis, psoriatic arthritis, excess weight or obesity.

The most common cause of lymphedema is damage to the lymph nodes or 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; this involves 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). When too much fluid that is not drained accumulates in an affected limb, lymphedema may develop.

Lymphedema may not be obvious at first. However, a doctor can test for this condition using MRI scans, CT scans and/or ultrasounds. Radionuclides can also be injected in order for a doctor to scan images and look for blockages in your lymph vessels.

Lymphedema Symptoms

  • Swelling
  • Aching and discomfort
  • Restricted range of motion
  • Hardening and thickening of the skin
  • A tight and/or heavy feeling
  • Recurring infections

Lymphedema Treatment

Speak with a doctor to learn how to best treat your lymphedema. Some of the recommended treatment options may include:
  • Wearing prescribed compression garments such as sleeves and stockings
  • Proper diet and skin care
  • Elevating swollen limb, such as an arm or a leg, to drain the lymph fluid away from the affected area
  • Resting the affected limb above the heart on a comfortable surface
  • Avoiding pressure to the armpit or groin
  • Very mild exercise to 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 cannot be removed by the lymphatic transport system due to the impairment of the lymphatic system. The lymphatic fluid exceeds the 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.
  • Lymphedema and edema can occur simultaneously.

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

Check out our selection of doctor-recommended lymphedema shoes and foot products at Healthy Feet Store. We offer an excellent selection of cast boots, medical shoes and adjustable post-surgery shoes to accommodate and help treat this condition.

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