Lymphedema is an abnormal buildup of fluid, often found in the arms and legs, that develops when lymph vessels or lymph nodes are missing, impaired, damaged or removed. This condition can affect your health in many different ways and can cause long-term physical, psychological and social problems for patients.
Your lymphatic system, which is part of your immune system, is crucial to helping keep your body healthy. It helps to circulate protein-rich lymph fluid throughout the body and to collect bacteria, viruses and other waste products. It then carries this fluid and the collected waste through your lymph vessels to your lymph nodes. The waste is then filtered by lymphocytes — infection-fighting cells that live in the lymph nodes — and is ultimately flushed from your body. Lymphedema results from a blockage in your lymphatic system that prevents lymph fluid from draining well. This fluid builds up and can lead to swelling.
The symptoms of lymphedema may include the following:
- Swelling in part or all of your arm or leg, including fingers and toes
- A feeling of heaviness and tightness
- Restricted range of motion
- Aching or discomfort
- Recurring infections
- Hardening and thickening of the skin (fibrosis)
Secondary lymphedema is a condition characterized by the swelling of soft tissues in with an excessive amount of lymph has accumulated. Secondary lymphedema is more common than primary lymphedema and can be caused by a list of ailments including:
- Radiation treatment
- Infection of the lymph nodes
- Primary lymphedema
- Milroy’s Disease (congenital lymphedema)
- Meige’s Disease (lymphedema praecox)
- Late-onset lymphedema (lymphedema tarda)
Factors that may increase your risk for developing primary or secondary lymphedema can include:
- Older age
- Excess weight or obesity
- Rheumatoid or psoriatic arthritis
- Radiation exposure
While there is no cure for lymphedema, it can be easily managed with an early diagnosis, diligent care of the affected limb and simple lifestyle changes. Reduce your risk of developing lymphedema by:
- Avoiding tight clothing
- Preventing sunburn
- Avoiding heavy lifting with the affected arm
- Moisturizing with unscented lotion daily
- Stretching or light exercising
- Maintaining a healthy body weight
Consult your doctor if you notice persistent swelling in an arm or leg. If you already have lymphedema, see your doctor if there is a sudden increase in the size of the limb.
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