Lymphedema (also known as Lymphatic Obstruction) is a condition characterized by the swelling of a body part (usually the arms or legs) due to the build-up of excess lymph fluid. Lymphedema in the legs and arms is often caused by the dissection of or damage to one's lymph nodes during cancer treatment. Continue reading below to know more about lymphedema symptoms, causes, treatments, risk factors, and prevention.
Everything You Need to Know about Lymphedema:
In This Article:
- What Are the Causes of Lymphedema?
- What Are the Symptoms of Lymphedema?
- Who Is at Risk?
- What Are the Potential Complications?
- How to Prevent Complications from Lymphedema
- What Are the Treatments for Lymphedema
What are the Causes of Lymphedema?
The body's lymphatic system (a part of the immune system) does a crucial job in keeping the body healthy. It's responsible for the circulation of protein-rich lymph fluid that collects viruses, bacteria, and waste products throughout the body. This fluid, together with harmful substances, is transported into the lymph nodes through the lymph vessels. Lymphocytes in the lymph nodes (infection-fighting cells) then filter out wastes to be flushed out of the body.
Lymphedema Causes for Each Type!
When the lymph vessels cannot adequately flush out lymph fluid, lymphedema occurs (usually in the leg or arm). There are two types of lymphedema — primary, occurring on its own; and secondary, caused by a disease or condition. The latter is far more common than the former.
Causes of Primary Lymphedema:
Primary lymphedema is a rare, inheritable, genetic development disorder. The different types include:
1. Milroy's Disease or Congenital Lymphedema!
This begins in infancy and causes the abnormal formation of the lymph nodes and disruption in lymph drainage which leads to buildup. It is a type of lymphedema in the legs caused by the hypertrophy of soft tissues.
2. Meige's Disease or Lymphedema Praecox!
Meige's disease is a neurological movement disorder characterized by involuntary muscle contractions in the tongue and jaw. This disorder causes lymphedema during pregnancy or around puberty but can occur until the age of 35.
3. Late-Onset Lymphedema or Lymphedema Tarda!
This rarely occurs and usually starts after age 35.
Causes of Secondary Lymphedema:
Conditions or procedures that damage the lymph vessels or lymph nodes can lead to lymphedema.
The removal of or the injury during the removal of lymph nodes and/or lymph vessels may lead to lymphedema. For example, a person undergoing a lymphadenectomy (dissection of lymph nodes) to check for breast cancer spread may suffer injuries to the lymph nodes during the surgery.
2. Cancer Radiation Treatment!
Some of the side effects of radiation are the inflammation and scarring of the lymph nodes or vessels.
Cancer cells may block lymphatic vessels resulting in lymphedema. For example, a mass growing near a lymph vessel or lymph node can grow large enough to restrict lymph fluid flow.
4. Infection or Parasites!
Parasites and infections can block the flow of lymph fluid. Cases of infection-caused lymphedema are most common in tropical regions and developing countries.
What are the Symptoms of Lymphedema?
Signs and symptoms of lymphedema may include:
- Swelling in the leg or arm, including toes or fingers
- Tightness or heaviness in the affected limb
- Discomfort and aching
- Fibrosis (thickening and hardening of the skin)
- Recurring infections
The swelling due to lymphedema ranges from mild (without notable changes in the size of the leg or arm) to the extreme (swelling that impairs function and mobility). Lymphedema due to cancer treatment may not manifest months or years post-procedure.
Who is at Risk?
Old age, obesity, and rheumatoid or psoriatic arthritis may increase one's risk of developing lymphedema. History of cancer and other invasive treatment is also a risk factor.
What are the Potential Complications?
Here are a few complications that can arise because of lymphedema:
- Infections. Lymphedema can result in lymphangitis (bacterial infection of the lymph vessels) and cellulitis (bacterial infection of the skin). Even the tiniest injury to one's leg or arm can become an infection entry point.
- Lymphangiosarcoma. This is a rare form of cancer that results from untreated severe lymphedema. Signs of this complication include purple or blue-red marks on the skin.
How to Prevent Complications from Lymphedema:
Before undergoing surgery for cancer, ask if your lymph nodes or vessels will be involved in the procedure and if the radiation treatment will be aimed at the lymph nodes. This way you will be aware of the possible risks.
Try doing the following to reduce the risk of having lymphedema:
- Rest the limbs during recovery. Although patients are encouraged to exercise and stretch after undergoing cancer treatment, activities done shouldn't be strenuous until full recovery.
- Protect the limbs. Protect the affected limb at all costs. Cuts, burns, and scrapes can invite infection. Be extra careful when using sharp tools — use electric razors, use a thimble when sewing, wear gloves when cooking or gardening. Lastly, if possible, avoid medical procedures like vaccinations or blood draws on the affected limb.
- Avoid heat on the arms or legs. It's discouraged to apply direct heat or cold (such as the use of a hot pad) to the affected limb.
- Avoid constricting the affected limb. Refrain from wearing tight clothing, or using the affected arm when having your blood pressure measured.
- Elevate the leg or arm above heart level whenever possible.
- Hygiene is important. Keep your limbs clean, including both your skin and nails. Make a habit of daily inspection for breaks or changes in the skin that can result in infection. Never walk barefoot.
What are the Treatments for Lymphedema?
Although there is no lymphedema cure at present, early diagnosis and homeopathic treatment can help in managing the affected limb.
1. Lymphedema Massage!
Manual lymphatic drainage (MLD) is a specialty massage that can reduce the swelling caused by the build-up of fluid after cancer treatment. It works by moving the fluid from the swollen area into a part of the body with normal lymph system function. Specialists in lymphedema treatment centers are able to do this by performing specialized skin movements to clear the part where they want the build-up to drain into. The different types of MLD include:
- Fluoroscopy-guided manual lymphatic drainage (FG-MLD)
- Földi, Vodder
2. Lymphedema Exercises for Upper Extremity!
Aside from massages, an exercise program can help in improving lymphatic flow too. Some of the best exercises include those that require deep breathing to boost lymph fluid flow. Aerobic exercises are great for the upper extremities and can help with weight loss. As simple as stretching is, it can also help with the condition.
3. Lymphedema Exercises for Legs!
There are also a number of lymphedema leg exercises to help reduce the swelling:
- Hip flexes: Draw your knee towards your chest and then back down.
- Hip abduction: Extend your leg to its outer side as far as you can then bring it back in and do the other leg.
- Knee extensions: While sitting down, lift the lower part of your leg until it is in line with your thighs then bring it back down.
- Ankle pumps: Flex your foot upwards and downwards at a slow pace.
- Ankle circles: Rotate one ankle clockwise and then counterclockwise.
- Toe scrunches: Tightly contract your toes and then gently retract them.
3. Herbs, Tea, or Infusions:
Intake of herbs, tea, or infusions that help with inflammation and swelling such as turmeric tea can help patients with lymphedema. Ginger tea, on the other hand, can help with the flow of the lymphatic system. Below are a few more lymph cleansing herbs:
- Burdock. Burdock roots support detox through the liver and the lymph. Aside from this, it's also great for digestive function.
- Violet. Violet leaves and flowers can boost the lymph system's flow. This is a nutritious plant with soothing and healing capabilities as well as laxative properties.
- Red Clover. These flowers are also called blood cleaners. Not only are they helpful for improving the flow of lymph fluid, but they are also beneficial for women because they contain phytoestrogens.
- Red Root is one of the best herbs with lymphatic benefits. It can help with swollen and congested lymph nodes.
- Echinacea. Although known better to be an herb that improves the immune system, it's also a potent lymphagogue.
To fully understand lymphedema, its causes, symptoms, and treatment, watch this video from Osmosis below:
Early diagnosis of lymphedema is of utmost importance to manage the illness properly. When experiencing persistent swelling in your arm or leg, consult a doctor right away. If already diagnosed with the disease, visit a doctor ASAP when the involved limb increases in size dramatically as that may be a sign of the disease progression.
Do you have questions about lymphedema? Let us know in the comments section below!
Editor's Note - This post was originally published on August 7, 2018, and has been updated for quality and relevancy.
Disclaimer: These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. None of the nutritional products mentioned is intended to Diagnose, Treat, Cure, or Prevent Any Disease.