Lymphedema is a condition where the tissue swells causing an accumulation of protein-rich fluid that is usually drained through the body’s lymphatic system. It mainly affects the arms or legs; however, it can also affect the chest wall, abdomen, neck and genitals.
Lymph nodes are a critical part of the lymphatic system. Any type of issue that blocks the drainage of lymph fluid can cause lymphedema. Extreme cases of lymphedema can affect the ability to move the affected limb, increase the risks of skin infections and sepsis, and can lead to skin changes and breakdown.
Lymphedema signs and symptoms include swelling of part or all of the arm or leg, including fingers or toes, a feeling of heaviness or tightness, restricted range of motion, recurring infections as well as the hardening and thickening of the skin. Signs and symptoms can range from mild to severe. Lymphedema caused by cancer treatment may not occur until months or years after treatment. Lymph nodes act as filters and contain cells that fight infection and cancer.
Physiotherapist, Dr. Savion Francis shares more about Lymphoedema on Sunrise. Watch it here:
The most common causes of lymphedema include cancer. If cancer cells block lymph vessels, lymphedema may result. For instance, a tumor growing near a lymph node or lymph vessel could enlarge enough to block the flow of the lymph fluid. In radiation treatment for cancer and cancer surgery, lymph nodes are often removed to see if the disease has spread. However, this does not always result in lymphedema. Parasites in developing countries like the tropics can cause lymphedema infection with threadlike worms that blocks the lymph nodes.
Risk factors that may increase the risk of developing lymphedema include old age, excess weight or obesity, and rheumatoid or psoriatic arthritis.
Treatment may include compression bandages, massage, compression stockings, sequential pneumatic pumping, careful skin care and rarely, surgery to remove swollen tissue or to create new drainage routes.
Complications can include skin infections, sepsis, leakage through the skin, cancer and skin changes.