Lymphedema is a condition in which swelling develops, usually in an arm or a leg, due to a compromised or impaired lymphatic system. The lymphatic system is a part of the immune system that fights infection and is also responsible for cleansing the tissues and maintaining balance of fluids in the body.
The lymphatic system circulates a fluid called lymph throughout the body. The lymph collects bacteria, viruses, and waste products. The lymph travels through lymph vessels, which lead to lymph nodes. In the lymph nodes, the wastes are then filtered out by lymphocytes (white blood cells). Clusters of lymph nodes are found in the underarm, pelvis, neck, abdomen, and groin. Lymphedema occurs when the lymph system is damaged or blocked. When this happens, the lymph vessels are unable to adequately drain lymph fluid, usually from an arm or leg, although it can also affect other parts of the body.
There are two types of lymphedema. Primary lymphedema is in inherited problem that causes improper development of the lymphatic system. Secondary lymphedema is caused by the removal or enlargement of the lymph nodes due to illness, surgery, or injury.
The main symptom is persistent swelling, usually of an arm or leg. Symptoms may occur very slowly over time or more quickly in the case of infection or injury. Imaging tests may be used to diagnose lymphedema.
Most of the underlying causes of lymphedema are irreversible. There is no cure for lymphedema. However, treatments are available to reduce the swelling and keep it to a minimum. Treatment focuses on minimizing the swelling, controlling pain, and preventing complications. Treatment includes physical methods, such as compression stockings, and medicines. In cases of severe lymphedema, surgery may be performed to remove excess tissue from the affected area. Medications are generally not used. Lymphedema may improve with time, although some swelling usually persists throughout an affected person's lifetime.
Primary lymphedema is inherited and cannot be prevented. Patients at risk of developing secondary lymphedema can take measures to help prevent it. Patients having tumors removed and/or radiation therapy should find out if the procedure will involve the lymph nodes or lymph vessels. The chance of improving the condition is better if treatment begins early. Untreated lymphedema can lead to problems that cannot be reversed. Complications of lymphedema include skin infections, elephantiasis (extreme swelling), and cancer of the lymph vessels. Many of the complications may be prevented by vigilant skin care and hygiene.

Related Terms

Congenital lymphedema, elephantiasis, filarial elephantiasis, late-onset lymphedema, lymphatic obstruction, lymphedema praecox, lymphedema tarda, lymphoedema, Meige's disease, Milroy's disease.

types of the disease

Primary lymphedema: Primary lymphedema is a rare inherited condition caused by problems with the development of the lymph vessels in the body. Primary lymphedema occur most frequently in women and usually affects the legs rather than the arms. Symptoms may occur at birth or later in life.
Secondary lymphedema: Secondary lymphedema is the result of damage to the lymph system, which may be caused by infection, injury, cancer, removal of lymph nodes, radiation, or scar tissue.