What is Lymphedema?

Lymphedema is a condition that causes extreme, chronic swelling from an accumulation of lymph fluid in the body, often in the arms or legs. It is caused by extra fluid that doesn't circulate normally in the body. 

The lymphatic system helps the immune system by filtering waste products (bacteria and debris), proteins, and fluid from body tissues. When the system is not working properly, proteins become trapped and adversely affect body functions. In essence, lymphedema is a backup of the body’s sewage system. 

What Does Lymphedema Pain Feel Like?

Lymphedema causes severe discomfort, feelings of "heaviness" and decreased function of the extremities caused by the retention of lymphatic fluid. Left untreated, it can lead to pain, poor wound healing, permanent skin changes, functional disability, and cellulitis, a skin condition that may require hospitalization.

What Causes Lymphedema?

There are two types of lymphedema: primary and secondary. 

Primary lymphedema is caused by a malformation of the lymphatic system which is typically hereditary. If your sibling, parent, grandparent, or other family member also has difficulty with swelling, you may fit into this category.

Secondary lymphedema has multiple causes with the most common in the United States being cancer treatment or venous insufficiency. Cancer treatment such as lymph node removal or radiation, which disrupts the lymphatic system, decreases the efficiency of the system and can lead to a backup of fluid. In venous insufficiency, backup of blood, usually in the legs, puts strain on the lymphatic system so it must work harder. When the system works at a high level for a long time, it can start to cause damage to the fragile lymphatic vessels which causes a pooling of fluid and proteins in the extremities. More causes of secondary lymphedema can include:

  • Removal of lymph nodes
  • Abnormal or damaged lymph vessels
  • Venous insufficiency
  • Infection
  • Surgery
  • Trauma/injury
  • Cancer treatment
  • Other health conditions such as stroke, heart bypass, morbid obesity

How is Lymphedema Treated?

Evidence-based treatment for lymphedema is Complete Decongestive Therapy (CDT). This treatment consists of Manual Lymphatic Drainage (MLD), compression garments or bandaging, and exercise. 

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Lymphedema Treatment

There are many evidence-based lymphedema treatment options, including physical therapy, lymphatic drainage, massage and exercise. Our team of experts is here to support you. Learn more about lymphedema treatment at UnityPoint Health today. 
Lymphedema Therapy