Lymphedema: What is it?

Lymphedema is swelling that’s caused by a collection of too much fluid or “lymph” in the tissues. Lymphedema usually occurs in the arms or legs but can happen in other parts of the body as well.  Lymphedema can be classified as either “primary” meaning you are born with an insufficient lymphatic system, or “secondary” as a result of trauma or damage to the lymphatic system.

Our lymphatic system plays two roles in the body. It is part of our circulatory and immune systems. It can be thought of as a network of lymph nodes connected by small lymphatic vessels. Lymph nodes make infection fighting white blood cells and filter the lymph fluid to remove waste, bacteria, viruses and cancer cells. The lymphatic vessels are small, superficial single walled structures with one-way valves that slowly move lymph fluid from the body back to the heart. Research tells us that 98% of blood returning to the heart travels in veins, while the remaining 2% travels in the lymphatic vessels.

The most common cause of lymphedema is from cancer treatment including removal of lymph nodes, radiation treatment, tumors that return or spread to the lymph nodes or blockage from scar tissue. When something goes wrong, the fluid backs up in your tissue. The excess fluid can cause pain and limit your movement, but more importantly you are more susceptible to infection or lymphatic cancer.

Prevention is very important to avoid chronic lymphedema. If you have had or you are going to have cancer surgery, ask your doctor whether your procedure will involve your lymph nodes or vessels and ask if your radiation treatment will be aimed at lymph nodes, so you will be aware of the possible risk. We don’t all have the same number of lymph nodes, so removing four lymph nodes from one person may not cause lymphedema, where another person may have a problem. 

Did you know that the first signs of lymphedema can be a feeling of heaviness or tightness before you even see swelling? Did you know that lymphedema can develop soon after your cancer treatment or may appear years later? There are many risk reduction strategies to avoid developing lymphedema. A trained lymphedema therapist can provide individualized hands-on treatment, information, and individualized exercises to reduce your risk of developing lymphedema. A well-fitting compression garment when you fly or travel over a high mountain pass is an excellent way to avoid developing lymphedema. If you have lymphedema it can be life changing. Seek out treatment that will help decrease the edema and pain with manual lymph drainage, appropriate compression garments, diet changes and exercises.