What is Lymphedema? Definition, Symptoms and Treatment

A swelling in the limbs resulting from the irregular increase of fluids due to the dysfunction of the lymphatic system is known as lymphedema. A network of lymph vessels and lymph nodes are accountable for the transportation of lymphatic fluids to the bloodstream for elimination of harmful substances. If there is an obstruction of this movement due to an injury to this network, fluids will accumulate in one place and cause a swelling. Lymphedema may develop as a result of surgery to the lymph vessels or if they are missing or deformed.

Lymphedema has been categorized into two, primary and secondary lymphedema. Primary lymphedema or hereditary lymphedema is present at birth and is genetically inherited. At times, it may show up during adolescence or during adulthood. Secondary lymphedema is an acquired condition due to various factors like a surgery to the lymph nodes or radiation for cancer treatment. Women may experience lymphedema in the upper body after mastectomy or lumpectomy, while the lower region of the body may be affected due to ovarian or uterine cancer treatment. For men, lymphedema is apparent in the legs on account of treatment for the colon, prostrate or testicular cancer.

There are also few diseases that obstruct the smooth function of the lymphatic system, thus causing lymphedema. Birth defects in the formulation of the lymph glands can also be a cause for dysfunction in the lymphatic system leading to lymphedema, which may be seen in anywhere in the body. Lymphatic filariasis, also identified as elephantiasis is very common in the tropical regions. This is a parasitic infection, spread by mosquitoes, leading to lymphedema symptoms.

Correct diagnosis of lymphedema in the initial stages may at times prove to be difficult. This is because the symptoms develop very slowly and may not be easily noticed. Initially the patient may complain of heaviness in the limb. As there is no fluid buildup, this is only a mild edema which can be treated easily. If left untreated, the condition progresses to a stage where the whole arm or leg will swell due to fluid accumulation. The color of the skin also changes and cysts may be formed. The doctor can diagnose the condition by comparing both the limbs. Severe lymphedema may lead to fibrosis, the more advanced condition of the disease.

Various therapies form part of the lymphedema treatment plan. The severity of the disease is also a deciding factor. Typically, a lymphedema patient may be treated with a combination of massage therapy, compression bandaging, use of compression garments, exercise and skin care. Manual lymph drainage is a massage therapy where the fluids are stimulated to move in the right direction. The lymphedema pump may be also be used. Exercises keep the body flexible and the fluids circulating properly. Skin care helps to ward of infections which is a recurring problem for lymphedema patients. Surgery may be a form of treatment in certain cases which do not respond to conventional therapy.