The lymphatic system is an essential part of a healthy body. Lymph fluid rich in protein circulates throughout the system of lymph vessels, carrying with it bacteria, viruses, and waste products. When the fluid gets to the lymph nodes, it is filtered by cells called lymphocytes and then flushed from the body.
Lymphedema is a sign that the lymphatic system is not operating properly and causes swelling, generally in one arm or leg. However, the condition can also affect other areas of the body and/or multiple limbs simultaneously. This swelling occurs because of high-protein lymphatic fluid building up beneath the skin and is usually caused by damage, impairment, or the removal of lymph vessels in certain areas of the body. As a result, the body cannot properly transport or drain lymphatic fluids.
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Lymphedema causes can be broken into two broad categories, including:
- Primary lymphedema – These are rare, inherited abnormalities in the lymphatic system, which, depending on the disease, may occur in infancy, around puberty, or after the age of 35.
- Secondary lymphedema – This is caused by damage to the lymph nodes or lymph vessels from an outside source, such as cancer, an infection, surgery, or radiation treatment.
In some cases, especially when left untreated, lymphedema causes serious health complications. The most common of these is infections because the lymphatic fluid that builds up beneath the skin is a favorable environment for bacteria growth. For example, a bacterial infection of the skin, also known as cellulitis, can develop as a result of lymphedema.
If you are concerned you may be suffering from lymphedema, speak with your physician about a referral to a physician who specializes in lymphedema treatment or a certified lymphedema therapist.