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What is Lymphedema?

Lymphedema is the accumulation of lymphatic fluid in the interstitial tissue that causes swelling, most often in the arms(s) and/or leg(s), and occasionally in other parts of the body.  Lymphedema can develop when lymphatic vessels are missing or malformed (primary), or when lymph vessels are damaged or removed (secondary).

When the impairment becomes so great that lymphatic fluid exceeds the lymphatic transport capacity, an abnormal amount of protein-rich fluid collects in the tissues of the affected area.  If left untreated this stagnant fluid not only causes tissue channels to increase in size, but also reduces oxygen availability in the transport system, interferes with wound healing, and provides a culture medium for bacteria which can result in infection.

Lymphedema should not be confused with venous insufficiency edema.  However, untreated venous insufficiency can progress into a combined disorder, which is treated in the same way as Lymphedema.

Some of this information adapted from the National Lymphedema Network booklet, Lymphedema: An information Booklet.

What causes Lymphedema?

  • Primary
    • Developmental
    • Congenital
  • Secondary
    • Surgery
    • Trauma
    • Cancer
    • Radiation Therapy
    • Cellulitis/Lymphangitis

Symptoms of Lymphedema

  • Swelling in the limb
  • "Full" sensation in the limb
  • Skin feeling tight
  • Decreased flexibility in the affected area
  • Difficulty fitting into clothing, tight fitting jewelry

Stages of Lymphedema

  • Mild
    • Characterized by accumulation of protein rich fluid. Edema is pitting and limb may be near normal size in the morning.
  • Moderate
    • Has the same characteristics as ‘mild' stage but tissue may become spongy or fibrotic as scar tissue formation occurs.
  • Severe
    • This stage progresses from the ‘moderate' presentation with hardening of dermal tissues and formation of skin papillomas (fluid filled sacs).
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