An Overview of Lymphedema
If you’re unfamiliar with lymphedema, this overview can help you recognize the condition. It normally describes swelling in one of your arms or legs, or sometimes in both arms or both legs. There can be varying causes, but it is most commonly the result of the removal of lymph nodes, commonly stemming from cancer treatment. This causes blockages in the lymphatic system, which leads to swelling by preventing lymph fluid from properly draining.
Symptoms & Causes
This condition can happen in the arms or the legs, and there are several common symptoms to watch for.
- Swelling of the entire limb including fingers or toes, which can vary from mild to severe
- Restricted motion
- Aching and discomfort
- Heavy or tight feelings
- Thickening or hardening of the skin, which is called fibrosis
- Recurrent infections
Causes of lymphedema most often stem from surgery or damage to lymph nodes. This type of lymphedema is referred to as “secondary” lymphedema because underlying causes may be unrelated to the condition originally though they’ve caused damage to the lymph nodes. Some of these causes include:
- Infection that damages lymph nodes or restricts the flow of lymph fluid
- Surgery to remove lymph nodes—most often cancer surgery, which can result in lymph node removal to check for cancer spread
- Cancer, if cancerous growths restrict or block lymph vessels
- Radiation treatment, which can inflame and scar lymph nodes
While much rarer, there are primary causes of lymphedema, too. Typically, these are inherited conditions.
- Late onset lymphedema, which is very rare and typically occurs after age 35
- Meige’s disease, which can cause lymphedema during puberty or pregnancy
- Milroy’s disease, which is a congenital disorder beginning in infancy that results in lymph nodes forming abnormally.
Steps to Prevent Lymphedema
There is a lot that you can do to prevent lymphedema. For instance, staying fit promotes good circulation to help lymph fluid drain, and hygiene can help prevent secondary infections. Here are some other precautions to take if you have lymphedema:
- Avoid tight clothing that can restrict circulation—including blood pressure cuffs. Ask for blood pressure to be taken using an unaffected limb.
- Elevation can help to prevent fluid buildup or to drain fluid.
- Protect affected limbs because cuts and other injuries can become infected.
- Avoid extreme temperatures on the affected limb, including the use of ice or heat.
- Make sure to get plenty of rest. Stretching and moderate exercise can help, but in the aftermath of surgery or other treatments, you should avoid strenuous exercise.
Common Treatment Types
There is no cure for lymphedema, but it can be managed using a variety of techniques—particularly exercise. Light exercise improves circulation, which can promote lymph fluid drainage. Other treatments include:
- Wrapping the affected limb to encourage lymph fluid to flow toward your trunk. This means wrapping tighter around fingers or toes, and progressively looser along the length of your limb.
- Compression garments put pressure on the limb, which encourages the flow of lymph fluid.
- Manual lymph drainage is a massage technique that can help move lymph fluid away from your arm or leg. This treatment is typically administered by someone specifically trained in lymph drainage.
- Pneumatic compression can help, too. This is a type of sleeve that covers the affected limb, featuring a pump to inflate the sleeve and place pressure on the limb.
- Complete Decongestive Therapy (CDT) is a combined approach to treatment that blends lifestyle changes with some of the other treatments listed above.
Get Treatment at Premier Heart & Vein Care in California
If you’re suffering with lymphedema, we encourage you to learn more about our lymphedema procedures. This is a manageable condition, and a diagnosis plus the right treatments can help you get relief. Contact us today for a consultation or to schedule an appointment.