Lymphedema refers to an unusual accumulation of the lymph fluid in the extremities of the body. It leads to massive swelling in the limbs accompanied by pain in the affected arms or legs.
The lymphatic network of vessels and nodes helps transfer the lymph fluid into the bloodstream. An obstruction in this network can hinder the movement of the lymph fluid and result in its undesired pooling.
There are two main types of lymphedema. Primary Lymphedema, also known as hereditary lymphedema is an inherited medical condition. Problems in the development of the lymph vessels are reported at the time of birth and symptoms usually begin to develop during infancy or adolescence.
Secondary lymphedema is not genetic. It is caused when the lymphatic network is harmed due to an infection, injury, surgery, or radiations from cancer treatment.
While certain risk factors of lymphedema are in our control, most others aren’t. But it always helps to know about the causes so that you are able to gauge your risk level and keep a close eye for any early signs or prevalent symptoms.
Genetics leading to birth defects in the lymph gland is the only cause of primary lymphedema. The common causes of secondary lymphedema include radiation therapy or chemotherapy for cancer treatment, being overweight or obese, and removal of one or more lymph nodes.
Women who undergo mastectomy or lumpectomy are at a higher risk of lymphedema in their upper body while those who are survivors of ovarian or uterine cancer might develop lymphedema symptoms in their lower body. Any injury or infection at the site of surgery can also lead to lymphedema.
Lymphedema symptoms develop very slowly and are hard to notice in the initial stages. In the beginning, there is only mild edema and the patient may experience a feeling of heaviness in the affected limbs.
If the condition isn’t diagnosed or remains untreated at this stage, excessive lymph fluid build-up overtime is likely to lead to swelling in the arms and/or the legs. The patient might also complain of tightness and difficulty in moving the limbs.
Due to excessive swelling, it may become difficult for the patient to fit in the clothes or wear rings and bracelets that would easily fit earlier. In extreme cases, lymphedema also leads to skin discoloration along with the development of cysts in the affected area.
If you have any prominent signs of lymphedema, the doctor will begin the diagnosis with a physical examination of the affected area and request you to share all details about you and your family’s medical history.
To confirm the diagnosis, the doctor will ask you to undergo some diagnostic examinations and imaging scans namely an MRI scan, CT scan, and an ultrasound scan. This will help the doctor to check for the presence of undesired fluid in the tissues.
Lymphedema is a chronic disorder and a lifelong medical condition. There is no cure for lymphedema but it can be easily managed by a combination of therapies that help ease the symptoms of swelling and pain.
Doctors recommend patients to perform light exercises as that is known to help drain the excess lymph fluid. Bandaging the affected limb or using a compression garment also helps the lymph fluid to flow back to the trunk of the body.
Massaging the area as per the lymph drainage manual is also known to accelerate lymph fluid drainage and help reduce the swelling and discomfort. These therapies combined with lifestyle changes have proven to be beneficial for a majority of lymphedema patients.
In some rare cases of severe lymphedema, surgery may be needed to remove the excess fluid from the limbs. But today, non-surgical and minimally invasive alternatives to surgery are available. These are painless procedures and are known to deliver the best results.