What is Lymphedema?
Lymphedema occurs when a clear fluid known as lymphatic fluid builds up and causes fluid retention in the soft tissues of your body, most often in the arms and legs. The lymphatic system consists of lymph vessels and lymph nodes. Lymph vessels collect a fluid that is made up of water, fats, protein, and wastes from the cells of the body. Lymph vessels carry this fluid to your lymph nodes. Lymph nodes filter waste materials and then recycle the fluid to your blood. Damaged or missing vessels and nodes can cause the lymph fluid to be blocked and unable to cycle through your system. The fluids can then create localized fluid retention and cause swelling, known as lymphedema, in the affected arms or legs.
The most common form of Lymphedema can be caused from injuries to your lymphatic system, also known as secondary lymphedema. Unfortunately, people can develop chronic lymphedema, which can last for the rest of their lives. Chronic lymphedema can be difficult to treat and it increases the likely hood to contract an infection. Lymphangitis is caused by minor injuries to the skin, such as a cut, scratch, insect bite, or even athlete’s foot between the toes can lead to a severe infection if not treated promptly. Lymphangitis affects the connective tissue under the skin. Multiple infections can cause scarring that makes the tissue vulnerable to more swelling and infection. Advanced chronic lymphedema can lead to fibrosis, or hardening of the tissue.
What are the symptoms?
Symptoms do not always occur immediately, and can sometimes occur 15 or more years following an injury to your lymphatic system. When symptoms eventually occur, they can include:
- Aching, weakness, redness, heaviness, or tightness in one of your limbs
- Less flexibility in your wrist or ankle
- Tight-fitting rings or shoes
What Causes Lymphedema?
The most common cause of lymphedema to legs is from infection. The second most common cause of lymphedema to the legs is injury. Other causes of lymphedema to the legs are from cancer and hereditary conditions.
What Tests Will I Need?
You will first need a general health check from your physician regarding medical history and symptoms, along with a physical exam. Your physician may also measure your affected limbs.
To confirm a diagnosis of lymphedema, your physician may order tests, including one or more of the following:
- Lymphoscintigraphy, which uses a low-dose injected radioactive substance to trace the flow of lymph fluid through your lymphatic vessels
- Duplex ultrasound, which uses high-frequency sound waves and Doppler technology to show vessels and real-time blood flow on a screen, often necessary to rule out a blood clot in your leg
- Lymphangiography, which uses contrast (dye) directly injected into the lymphatic vessels, is now used less frequently
How is Lymphedema Treated?
You can prevent lymphedema even if you know you are at risk. Initially, if you have mild lymphedema, you can take measures to prevent it worsening. The following precautions can minimize symptoms:
Clean your affected limb regularly. Remember to dry it thoroughly and apply lotion:
- If you shave the affected area, use an electric razor
- Don’t go barefoot
- Do not cross your legs when you sit
- Do not carry a handbag with your affected arm
- Compression wraps and stockings
Manually lymphatic drainage can be beneficial and uses massage to stimulate your weakened lymphatic system. Other treatment methods include special exercises that you can do while wearing compression stockings or bandages, and the use of external pumps to aid the movement of fluid through your body. Complex decongestive therapy is a combination of these exercises followed by a lifestyle change.
Medication cannot cure lymphedema but may treat associated conditions. Antibiotics can help in combating infections that can worsen lymphedema.