What is Lymphedema & Its Signs and Symptoms?

What is Lymphedema?

Lymphedema is an abnormal accumulation of protein-rich fluid in the interstitium (the space between our cells). Damage or blockage to the lymphatic system causes the lymph vessels to inadequately transport lymph fluid back into circulation, resulting in edema (swelling) in the soft tissues. Once this condition occurs, the swelling may increase if an effective treatment program is not initiated, and if left untreated will not be able to function properly without external support, and can lead to more serious conditions. 

Lymphedema causes chronic inflammation, reactive skin hardening called fibrosis, and varying amounts of adipose tissue proliferation of the affected area. Total lymphedema cases in the US are 3-5 million (exact numbers are unknown). 

How does Lymphedema develop?

Lymphedema is categorized as Primary Lymphedema and Secondary lymphedema.​ 

Primary Lymphedema is a congenital abnormality and is caused by malformations of the lymphatic system. These malformations may be present at birth or may develop later, often during puberty, pregnancy, or later in life. Primary lymphedema is most common in the legs, but may also occur in the arms or torso. ​ 

Secondary Lymphedema is a result of damage to the lymphatic system. Surgical procedures such as mastectomies, lumpectomies, lymph node removal, and radiation to lymph nodes are the most common causes. Other causes may include a traumatic injury, infection, parasitic disease, obesity, or severe chronic insufficiency. 

Lymphedema typically presents with swelling in one arm or leg, occasionally both. However, it can develop anywhere in your body including your chest, head, and genitals.

Signs/symptoms of Lymphedema:

• Gradual onset
• Progressive
• Pitting (prolonged finger pressure will produce indentation in the tissue)
• Discomfort, heaviness, achiness, tenderness, tightness
• Pins and needles
• Tissue changes
• Fatigue
• Clothing, jewelry, wristwatch, or shoe tightness
• Fluid leakage from the skin

What to do if symptoms occur?

Chloe performing MLD on a patient. A treatment for Lymphedema. What is Lymphedema? Learn more here.

If your lymphatic system is compromised, this network of vessels will have to work much harder to circulate fluid.

When it is unable to keep up, swelling and fluid build-up are likely to occur.

That is why the lymphatic vessels in the compromised area need external support.

Talking with your physician or a Certified Lymphedema Therapist can assist and help answer questions.