Lymphedema is a medical condition characterized by swelling in the arms or legs, which usually happens as a consequence of the removal or damaging of the lymph nodes. Lymph nodes are an important part of the lymphatic and immune system. It is where the most common type of blood cancer, lymphoma, develops. Lymphoma occurs when white blood cells called lymphocytes reproduce and enlarge abnormally — especially the cells in the lymph nodes.

Lymphedema and lymphoma are related, since lymphedema occurs mainly in patients who are receiving cancer treatment. The treatments used for lymphoma can block the lymphatic system, disabling the normal draining of the lymph fluid. Since the fluid accumulates in the body’s soft tissue, the limbs can swell. Despite the fact that there is no cure for lymphedema, it can be treated when diagnosed early in order to reduce damage to the affected limb.

Lymphedema Development and Risk Factors

The lymphatic system is key to the overall health of the body, since bacteria, viruses, and other noxious materials are conducted to the lymph nodes, where they are filtered and eliminated by the lymphocytes. Patients who suffer from lymphedema cannot properly perform this process, leading to swollen limbs.

Patients who are older, carry excess weight or are obese, or suffer from rheumatoid or psoriatic arthritis are risk factors that impact the development of the disease. The disease can be classified as primary or secondary, depending on the causes of its development.

Primary lymphedema, a rare and inherited disease, is caused by the abnormal development of the lymph system, which is consistent with illnesses like Milroy’s disease (congenital lymphedema), Meige’s disease (lymphedema praecox), and late-onset lymphedema (lymphedema tarda). Symptoms can occur at birth or later in life.

Secondary lymphedema is caused by a condition or procedure that damages the lymph system, including a surgery to remove the lymph nodes or lymph vessels, radiotherapy to treat cancer that can cause scarring and inflammation in the lymph nodes or vessels, a cancer that blocks the lymph vessels, and an infection in the lymph nodes caused by a parasite.

Lymphedema Symptoms and Diagnosis

Lymphedema affects one or both of the limbs and symptoms associated with the disease, include swelling of part or all of the arm or leg; feeling heavy or tight; motion limitations; aching or discomfort; persistent infections; or hardening or thickening skin, also known as fibrosis. When developed as a result of cancer or cancer treatment, lymphedema can show up months or even years afterward.

The signs of the disease are clear, and physicians may diagnose it just by seeing the patient, while in others additional exams may be needed. Tests to conduct the diagnosis include a complete medical exam and family history, an MRI scan, a CT scan, a Doppler ultrasound that analyzes blood flow and pressure, and a radionuclide imaging of the lymphatic system, also known as lymphoscintigraphy.

Prevalence and Treatment of Lymphedema

The prevalence of lymphedema is fairly high, as are related medical costs. There is no cure for the disease, but there are treatment options to help reduce the swelling and control the pain. Medically supervised exercise or wrapping the affected limb can help recover the lymph fluid drainage and mobility.

A specialized massage technique called manual lymph drainage has the same purpose, but it is not indicated for patients with skin infection, active cancer, blood clots, congestive heart failure, or those being treated with radiation therapy.

During pneumatic compression, the affected limb is placed in a sleeve that inflates, creating pressure to conduct the lymph fluid to the fingers or toes, while compression garments are long sleeves or stockings with the same intention that can be used during exercise.

In addition, complete decongestive therapy (CDT) is a combined treatment that includes the therapies above and lifestyle changes. It is recommended in case of high blood pressure, diabetes, paralysis, heart failure, blood clots, or severe infections.

Note: Lymphoma News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website.

Inês Martins holds a BSc in Cell and Molecular Biology from Universidade Nova de Lisboa and is currently finishing her PhD in Biomedical Sciences at Universidade de Lisboa. Her work has been focused on blood vessels and their role in both hematopoiesis and cancer development.
Inês Martins holds a BSc in Cell and Molecular Biology from Universidade Nova de Lisboa and is currently finishing her PhD in Biomedical Sciences at Universidade de Lisboa. Her work has been focused on blood vessels and their role in both hematopoiesis and cancer development.

One comment

  1. Karin Knight says:

    I was diagnosed with lymphedema April 11th, 2017 after having a thigh lift & pinnaculectimy, not sure of spelling, on Jan. 30th. Swelling with pain started March 7th right lower leg. Surgeon had no idea what it was. I got compression hose & increased my diuretic which I take for dependent edema in ankles. My PCP diagnosed it & finally started treatment May 9th with P.T. With 14 yrs experience. Also taking proteolytic enzymes & trying to loose 20 more lbs. edema started after a knot formed in incision line inner thigh. I now have one bil thighs. If theses knots are removed, would that open the lymphatic system again? I was surprised the surgeon couldn’t diagnose this & it went another month before PCP saw it. Surgeon also never mentioned that I was a risk for this because of the dependent edema.

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