Lymphedema: What Is It?

Credit: A. Targhian

Credit: A. Targhian

If you are facing surgery for breast cancer or another condition such as melanoma of the arm or leg, you might be at risk for a condition called lymphedema. When swelling, or edema, involves the body’s lymphatic system, fluid gets trapped and can’t drain. I have seen many patients suffer from this condition which, once it sets in, is something a person has to deal with for life.

What is lymphedema?

The human body contains an intricate roadway of vessels that sit right next to the arteries and veins. This system is called the lymphatic system, and it is a crucial component in keeping the body healthy. The lymphatic system contains protein-rich fluid and white blood cells that circulate throughout the body collecting, fighting off and flushing out bacteria and viruses. However, when this system gets disrupted or blocked, swelling occurs because the lymphatic fluid cannot be drained properly and lymphedema can result. It can happen anywhere in the body, but most often occurs in arms, legs or in the breasts.

What can cause lymphedema?

Lymphedema rarely occurs spontaneously (a condition known as primary lymphedema). It usually occurs as a secondary condition due to surgery, cancer, radiation, injury or infection. If, for example, a patient undergoes surgery to remove lymph nodes or if lymph nodes are damaged during a surgical procedure, the nodes stop working properly to “clean up” the related area of the body. Other causes include:
• Cancer, if it invades a lymph node and causes it to malfunction and/or blocks the associated lymphatic vessel.
• Radiation treatment to the breast and adjacent lymph nodes can cause scarring or inflammation and the collapse of lymphatic vessels.
• Infections, such as parasitic infections contracted in tropical regions.

How do I know if I have it?

Symptoms of lymphedema might start as something very subtle—your rings or watch might get tight, or you might feel heaviness or tightness in your fingers or wrist. Typically, the swelling associated with lymphedema will be constant rather than intermittent. You might also experience restricted range of motion, such as difficulty bending your fingers to type. The skin might also become hard or thick due to pressure from backed up fluid in the body. It is important to pay attention to this, particularly if the area becomes red or inflamed, as this could be a sign of a developing infection. If you’re undergoing surgery or radiation, your doctor should take baseline measurements and keep a close watch on any swelling in order to catch lymphedema before it progresses to any noticeable degree.

How can I prevent it?

There are no guaranteed methods for preventing lymphedema. If you’re planning to have surgery or radiation, be sure to ask your doctor about what methods the hospital will use to detect and, if necessary, treat the condition. There are, however, ways to minimize your risk, including:
• Pay attention to and protect the ‘at-risk’ area. Keep an eye out for abnormal swelling and/or changes in sensation, color or skin condition. Also, avoid injury to the area, including blood draws or vaccinations.
• Maintain a normal body weight. Obesity may increase your risk of developing lymphedema.
• Exercise to aid circulation and increase overall health. Check with your medical professional before beginning a new exercise routine, but the most current trend is to promote exercise to prevent or minimize lymphedema.
• Make skin and nail care a priority. Avoid manicures or pedicures that involve cutting or shaving tools, and only patronize nail salons that employ the highest standards of hygiene.
• If you notice swelling, tell your doctor immediately and ask for a compression sleeve evaluation.

How is lymphedema treated?

While there is no cure for lymphedema, it can be treated and managed. Some of the most common treatment methods are as follows:
• Massage: A specialized massage called Manual Lymphatic Drainage is often used to move lymph fluid around blocked areas in order to reduce swelling.
• Exercises: There are some light or remedial exercises used specifically to manage lymphedema.
• Compression bandaging or garments for the affected area(s) such as this compression sleeve click here
• Support groups: Lymphedema can be a frustrating and troublesome condition, but it can help to share thoughts and ideas with others who are similarly affected. You can find support groups in your area at the National Lymphedema Network website (

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