The lymphatic system plays a critical role in keeping the body healthy. Protein-rich lymph fluid circulates throughout the system and filters out waste products, cellular debris, toxins, bacteria and viruses from the body. When lymphedema occurs, certain lymph vessels are unable to adequately drain the lymph fluid, resulting in swelling, infection and other complications. Typically, lymphedema occurs in an arm or leg, but it may affect other areas of the body and/or multiple limbs at once.  

Causes of Lymphedema 

There are two types of lymphedema: primary and secondary.  

  • Primary lymphedema is rare and the result of an inherited disorder that prevents the body from properly developing lymph vessels.  
  • Secondary lymphedema is far more common and happens when healthy lymph vessels are damaged as a result of trauma.

Breast Cancer Treatment 

The most common cause of lymphedema is breast cancer treatment, including surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy, as all three of these treatments can disrupt the lymphatic system’s process.  

Other Causes 

Other causes of lymphedema include:  

  • Obesity
  • Trauma to the skin, such as a burn or cut 
  • Cancer treatment for prostate, pelvic area and head and neck cancers, as well as lymphoma and melanoma 
  • Kidney disease 
  • Infections 
  • Vascular and cardiac conditions

Symptoms of Lymphedema 

Lymphedema may cause minor swelling and discomfort at first, but its symptoms can gradually grow more severe as the swelling increases. Talk to your physician if you experience any of the following symptoms, especially if you are undergoing or have had cancer treatment: 

  • Swelling, especially in the arms or legs 
  • A feeling of uncomfortable heaviness or fullness 
  • Clothing or jewelry that feels tighter than usual or leaves a mark on your skin 
  • Skin redness or skin that is warm to the touch 
  • A burning or itching sensation in one area of your body
  • Puffy skin in one area of your body 
  • A noticeable difference in the size of one of your arms or legs

Diagnosing Lymphedema 

Diagnosing lymphedema begins with a physical examination. Then, imaging tests may be ordered, such as a:

  • Lymphoscintigraphy 
  • Doppler ultrasound 
  • MRI or CT scan 
  • Bioimpedance spectroscopy 
  • Indocyanine green lymphography (ICG)

Treating Lymphedema 

Lymphedema is a lifelong condition with no cure. However, symptoms can usually be effectively managed with lifestyle changes, such as: 

  • Exercising more frequently
  • Taking meticulous care of your skin and wearing compression garments
  • Manual lymph drainage (MLD), a specialized type of massage that gently moves lymph fluid out of a swollen lymph vessel