Defining – What is Lymphedema?

In simple terms, lymphedema may be described as swelling caused on account of the pooling of the lymph fluids. The lymphatic system is a network of lymph vessels and nodes and is responsible for transporting the body fluids to the blood stream for filtration and elimination of harmful elements. Lymphedema develops in case there is an obstruction to this function due to a trauma or injury to the lymph system. If the lymph vessels are surgically removed or are deformed or missing, it affects the smooth functioning of the system, leading to lymphedema.

The two types of lymphedema commonly seen are primary lymphedema and secondary lymphedema. Also known as hereditary lymphedema, primary lymphedema is caused due to genetic factors which may result in the individual having undeveloped or missing lymph vessels. This condition may be seen at birth; it may become apparent in the teenage years or at adulthood. Secondary lymphedema is more common. It is acquired due to surgery on account of cancer treatment. In case of women, lymphedema can be a side-effect of breast cancer therapy. Typically, treatment of ovarian or uterine cancer can cause lymphedema. Secondary lymphedema in men can be the result of treatment for colon, prostrate or testicular cancer.

Secondary lymphedema is widely prevalent in the tropical regions of the world. Filariasis is generally the reason for this condition; it is a parasitic infection caused due to mosquito bites. Lymphatic filariasis or elephantiasis as it is also known is caused by mosquitoes transmitting parasitic worms to humans. Malformation of the lymphatic network on account of its irregular development may be a cause for lymphedema. There are also some diseases that hinder the proper functioning of the lymphatic system.

Diagnosing lymphedema can sometimes be very difficult. The symptoms show up very gradually and may be attributed to other diseases. Initially there may be heaviness in the leg or the hand, a general observation that may go unnoticed because fluid retention is not apparent. This is the mild phase of the edema which is fully reversible if diagnosed correctly. However, as the ailment progresses, the entire limb will retain fluid and swell out of proportion.

Cysts or corns may be formed on the skin; the skin itself will be discolored. The doctor usually compares the circumference of the affected limb with the non-affected one to arrive at a definite prognosis. Fibrosis or the hardening of tissues is seen in the advanced stage of lymphedema.

Treating lymphedema involves a combination of various therapies. It also depends on the severity of the ailment and the amount of fibrosis present. Massage, compression bandages, manual lymph drainage and utilization of compression garments may be some ways to treat it. An exercise program to keep the limbs flexible and to promote circulation of the fluids is also followed. Skin care is equally important to keep infections at bay. Bandaging and wearing compression garments daily helps to maintain the reduction achieved through massage therapy.

Lymphedema patients may use pneumatic pumps or undergo manual lymph drainage therapy as a part of their treatment schedules. In some cases, surgery may be performed to treat lymphedema.