What is Lymphedema?
Lymphedema is the swelling in one or more extremities as a result of impaired flow of the lymphatic system.
The lymphatic system is a network of specialized vessels (lymph vessels) throughout the body; the purpose of these vessels is to collect excess lymph fluid with proteins, lipids, and waste products from the tissues.
The fluid is then carried to the lymph nodes which filter waste products and infection-fighting cells called lymphocytes. Excess fluid is then returned to the bloodstream.
Lymphedema develops when the lymph vessels become blocked and are unable to carry the lymph fluid away from the tissues.
What Causes Lymphedema?
There are various types of Lymphedema, each occurring at different stages in life and/or following illness or injury.
Primary lymphedema is an abnormality of an individual’s lymphatic system without an external cause; symptoms may not appear until later in life.
There are three forms of primary lymphedema, which are determined by the age at which symptoms begin to develop. Primary Lymphedema can occur without any known family history of the condition.
- Congenital Lymphedema is evident at birth, is more common in females, and it accounts for 20% of all cases of primary lymphedema. A certain portion of individuals with congenital lymphedema have inherited the condition and it known as Milroy disease.
- Lymphedema praecox is the most common form of primary lymphedema and is 4 times more common in females than males. It is defined as Lymphedema that becomes apparent between 1 and birth and before age 35 years of age, and symptoms often develop during puberty.
- Primary Lymphedema that becomes evident after 35 years of age is known as Meige disease or Lymphedema tarda. It is less common than congenital lymphedema and lymphedema praecox.
When a normally functioning lymphatic system is injured or damaged, secondary Lymphedema can occur.
The most common cause of this type in the United States is breast cancer treatment. The combination of surgery and radiation treatment a cancer patient receives is the most common cause of a blocked lymphatic system.
Any surgical procedure that requires removal of regional lymph nodes or lymph vessels can potentially cause Lymphedema.
Surgical procedures that have been associated with Lymphedema include vein stripping, lipectomy, burn scar excision, and peripheral vascular surgery.
Other causes include traumatic injuries and long-standing vein problems.
Lymphedema Caused By Filariasis
Outside of the United States, filariasis is the most common cause of Lymphedema. Filariasis is the infestation of lymph nodes by the parasite Wuchereria bancrofti.
The disease is spread among persons by mosquitoes, and affects millions of people in the tropics and subtropics of Asia, Africa, Western Pacific, and parts of Central and South America.
Infestation by the parasite damages the lymph system, leading to swelling in the arms, breasts, legs, and the male genital area. The entire leg, arm, or genital area may swell to several times its normal size. Also, the swelling and the decreased function of the lymph system make it difficult for the body to fight infections. Lymphatic filariasis is a leading cause of permanent disability in the world.
The Symptoms of Lymphedema
Swelling typically begins in one or both arms or legs. Oftentimes, individuals can mistake this initial swelling as weight gain but overtime an asymmetrical appearance develops between the arms or legs in which one limb is significantly larger than the other.
Other signs include:
- Swelling of part or all of your arm or leg, including fingers or toes
- Feeling of heaviness or tightness
- Restricted range of motion
- Aching or discomfort
- Recurring infections
- Hardening and thickening of the skin (fibrosis)
- Decreased flexibility in joints
- Skin rash
If you relate to the symptoms mentioned you should make an appointment with your doctor right away, as early diagnosis is crucial for the best treatment results.
Your doctor will first attempt to rule out other possible causes of swelling which can include blood clot or an infection.
Additionally these tests and processes may be performed to decide a diagnosis:
- Physical Exam
- MRI (Magnetic resonance imaging)
- CT Scan
- Doppler Ultrasound
If You Have Been Diagnosed with Lymphedema
- Do not wear tight-fitting clothes.
- Don’t go barefoot outdoors.
- Look for changes or breaks in the skin.
- Keep your skin supple by moisturizing it every day.
- Make sure footwear fits properly.
- To prevent developing athlete’s foot, use an anti-fungal foot powder.
- Keep your nails short.
- When going outside in an area where there may be insects, use insect repellent.
- When out in the sun, use a high factor sun block.
- When you have a cut, treat it immediately with an antiseptic cream; also keep the area very clean.
- Raise the affected limb above the level of the heart whenever possible.
To read about treatment options for Lymphedema click here.
If you have Lymphedema or you identify with any symptom(s) don’t delay, contact Alabama Vascular & Lymphatic Specialists today.
We provide the most comprehensive, progressive, and personal care available for Lymphatic diseases, including Lymphedema, in the Birmingham, Alabama area.
During your visit our specialist(s) will review your medical history and develop a treatment plan to get you on the path to better health.