Lymphedema refers to swelling that generally occurs in one of your arms or legs. Although lymphedema tends to affect just one arm or leg, sometimes both arms or both legs may be swollen.
Lymphedema is caused by a blockage in your lymphatic system, an important part of your immune and circulatory systems. The blockage prevents lymph fluid from draining well, and as the fluid builds up, the swelling continues. Lymphedema is most commonly caused by the removal of or damage to your lymph nodes as a part of cancer treatment.
There's no cure for lymphedema, but it can be controlled. Controlling lymphedema involves diligent care of your affected limb.
Lymphedema symptoms include:
The swelling caused by lymphedema ranges from mild, hardly noticeable changes in the size of your arm or leg to extreme swelling that can make it impossible to use the affected limb. If your lymphedema is caused by cancer treatment, you may not notice any swelling until months or years after treatment.
When to see a doctor
Your body's lymphatic system is part of your immune system, which protects you against infection and disease. The lymphatic system includes your spleen, thymus, lymph nodes and lymph channels, as ...
Lymphedema is swelling in an arm or leg. In rare circumstances it affects both arms or both legs. ...
Your lymphatic system is crucial to keeping your body healthy. It circulates protein-rich lymph fluid throughout your body, collecting bacteria, viruses and waste products. Your lymphatic system carries this fluid and harmful substances through your lymph vessels, which lead to lymph nodes. The wastes are then filtered out by lymphocytes — infection-fighting cells that live in your lymph nodes — and ultimately flushed from your body.
Lymphedema occurs when your lymph vessels are unable to adequately drain lymph fluid, usually from an arm or leg. Lymphedema can be either primary or secondary. This means it can occur on its own (primary lymphedema) or it can be caused by another disease or condition (secondary lymphedema). Secondary lymphedema is far more common than primary lymphedema.
Causes of secondary lymphedema
Causes of primary lymphedema
Lymphedema in your arm or leg can lead to serious complications, such as:
Preparing for your appointment
It's a good idea to arrive well prepared for your doctor's appointment. Here's some information to help you get ready for your appointment and know what to expect from your doctor.
What you can do
Your time with your doctor is limited, so preparing a list of questions can help you make the most of your time together. For lymphedema, some basic questions to ask your doctor include:
In addition to the questions that you've prepared to ask your doctor, don't hesitate to ask questions during your appointment at any time that you don't understand something.
What to expect from your doctor
What you can do in the meantime
Tests and diagnosis
Your doctor may try to rule out other causes of swelling when diagnosing lymphedema. Swelling can have many causes, including a blood clot or an infection that doesn't involve your lymph nodes.
If you're at risk of lymphedema — for instance, if you've recently had cancer surgery involving your lymph nodes — your doctor may diagnose lymphedema based on your signs and symptoms.
If the cause of your lymphedema isn't as obvious, your doctor may order imaging tests to determine what's causing your signs and symptoms. To get a look at your lymphatic system, your doctor may use an imaging technique, such as:
Treatments and drugs
There's no cure for lymphedema. Treatment focuses on reducing the swelling and controlling the pain. Lymphedema treatments include:
When several of these treatments are combined, this therapy may be referred to as complete decongestive therapy (CDT). Generally, CDT isn't recommended for people who have high blood pressure, diabetes, paralysis, heart failure, blood clots or acute infections.
In cases of severe lymphedema, your doctor may consider surgery to remove excess tissue in your arm or leg. While this reduces severe swelling, surgery can't cure lymphedema.
Coping and support
It can be frustrating to know that no cure exists for lymphedema. But if you're frustrated with the daily bandaging or constant need to protect your affected limb, know that you can control some aspects of lymphedema. To help you cope, try to:
If you feel frustrated or overwhelmed by lymphedema, talk to your doctor or other health care provider about how you feel. He or she may be able to address your concerns.
If you're at risk of developing secondary lymphedema, you can take measures to help prevent it. If you've had or are going to have cancer surgery, ask your doctor whether your particular procedure will involve your lymph nodes or lymph vessels. Ask if your radiation treatment will be aimed at any of your lymph nodes, so you'll be aware of the possible risks.
To reduce your risk of lymphedema, try to:
Last Updated: 2011-11-15
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