Lymphedema Facts, Symptoms & Prevention

Lymphedema facts

  • Lymphedema is a condition that results from impaired flow of the lymphatic system.  Symptoms of lymphedema include swelling in one or more extremities. The swelling may range from mild to severe and disfiguring.
  • Primary lymphedema is present at birth; secondary lymphedema develops as a result of damage to or dysfunction of the lymphatic system.
  • Breast cancer treatment is the most common cause of lymphedema in the U.S.  While there is no cure for lymphedema, compression treatments and physical therapy may help reduce the swelling and discomfort.

What is lymphedema?

Lymphedema is swelling in one or more extremities that results from impaired flow of the lymphatic system.

The lymphatic system is a network of specialized vessels (lymph vessels) throughout the body whose purpose is to collect excess lymph fluid with proteins, lipids, and waste products from the tissues. This fluid is then carried to the lymph nodes, which filter waste products and contain infection-fighting cells called lymphocytes. The excess fluid in the lymph vessels is eventually returned to the bloodstream. When the lymph vessels are blocked or unable to carry lymph fluid away from the tissues, localized swelling (lymphedema) is the result.

  • Lymphedema most often affects a single arm or leg, but in uncommon situations both limbs are affected.
  • Primary lymphedema is the result of an anatomical abnormality of the lymph vessels and is a rare, inherited condition.
  • Secondary lymphedema results from an identifiable damage to or obstruction of normally-functioning lymph vessels and nodes.
  • Worldwide, lymphedema is most commonly caused by filariasis (a parasite infection), but in the U.S., lymphedema most commonly occurs in women who have had breast cancer surgery, particularly when followed by radiation treatment.
  • It has been estimated that worldwide, there are 140 to 250 million people affected by lymphedema.

What are the symptoms of lymphedema?

The swelling of lymphedema usually occurs in one or both arms or legs, depending upon the extent and localization of damage. Primary lymphedema can occur on one or both sides of the body as well. Lymphedema may be only mildly apparent or debilitating and severe, as in the case of lymphatic filariasis (see above), in which an extremity may swell to several times its normal size. It may first be noticed by the affected individual as an asymmetry between both arms or legs or difficulty fitting into clothing. If the swelling becomes pronounced, fatigue due to added weight may occur, along with embarrassment and restriction of daily activities.

The long-term accumulation of fluid and proteins in the tissues leads to inflammation and eventual scarring of tissues, leading to a firm, taut swelling that does not retain its displacement when indented with a fingertip (nonpitting edema). The skin in the affected area thickens and may take on a lumpy appearance described as an orange-peel (peau d’orange) effect. The overlying skin can also become scaly and cracked, and secondary bacterial or fungal infections of the skin may develop. Affected areas may feel tender and sore, and loss of mobility or flexibility can occur.

The immune system function is also suppressed in the scarred and swollen areas affected by lymphedema, leading to frequent infections and even a malignant tumor of lymph vessels known as lymphangiosarcoma.

Can lymphedema be prevented?

Primary lymphedema cannot be prevented, but measures can be taken to reduce the risk of developing lymphedema if one is at risk for secondary lymphedema, such as after cancer surgery or radiation treatment.

The following steps may help reduce the risk of developing lymphedema in those at risk for secondary lymphedema:

  • Keep the affected arm or leg elevated above the level of the heart, when possible.
  • Avoid tight or constricting garments or jewelry (also avoid the use of blood pressure cuffs on an affected arm).
  • Do not apply a heating pad to the affected area or use hot tubs, steam baths, etc.
  • Keep the body adequately hydrated.
  • Avoid heavy lifting and forceful activity with the affected limb; but normal, light activity is encouraged.
  • Do not carry a heavy purse on an affected arm.
  • Practice thorough and careful skin hygiene.
  • Avoid insect bites and sunburns.

Resources:

http://www.lymphedivas.com/

http://www.lymphnet.org/

http://www.lymphnotes.com/index.php

http://www.lymphedemapeople.com/

Article From Medicinenet.com

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