Lymphedema is a condition characterized by the inability of certain lymph vessels to adequately drain lymph fluid (albumin). Typically, this occurs in an arm or leg, but it may affect other areas of the body and/or multiple limbs at once. In rare cases, this condition is the result of an inherited disorder that prevents the body from properly developing lymph vessels. This is referred to as primary lymphedema. However, most cases are secondary, which means that healthy lymph vessels are damaged as a result of some other condition, such as cancer, or are damaged accidentally during another treatment, such as surgery.
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By circulating protein-rich lymph fluid throughout the body that collects viruses, waste products, and bacteria, the lymphatic system plays a critical role in keeping the body healthy. The blockage of the circulation and draining of these fluids, which is a characteristic of lymphedema, can cause serious complications. Typically there will be swelling in the affected area, which is itself a cause for concern that requires attention. However, lymphedema may cause other problems, especially when left untreated. These include:
- Infections – Trapped lymph fluid is the ideal environment for bacteria growth, which may result in serious infections.
- Lymphangiosarcoma – In rare cases, untreated lymphedema can cause this form of soft tissue cancer.