Lymphedema is a condition that occurs when lymphatic fluid builds up and is retained in the soft tissues of the body, usually the legs and arms.
The most common cause of lymphedema is injuries to the lymphatic systems. The lymphatic system consists of the lymph nodes and vessels. The vessels of the system collect fluid consisting of fats, proteins, water and wastes from the cells. Damaged vessels can cause the fluid to become blocked and causes the fluid retention and swelling of lymphedema.
Unfortunately, chronic lymphedema can occur which can last a lifetime. Chronic lymphedema is often difficult to treat and it can increase the chances of infection.
Symptoms of Lymphedema
The symptoms of lymphedema include:
- Swelling in parts of or the entire leg or arm, including toes and fingers
- Feelings of tightness or heaviness in the legs or arms
- Range of motion restrictions
- Discomfort or achiness
- Recurring infections
- Thickening or hardening of the skin
Swelling can range from mild where the changes are barely noticeable to extreme where use of the limb becomes impossible.
To diagnose lymphedema, a physician will conduct a regular health exam that will include a medical history, as well as discussion of the symptoms. The affected area may also be measured.
Tests may be order to confirm the diagnosis. These tests can include:
- Lymphoscintigraphy that uses an injected low-dose radioactive substance to follow the flow of fluid through the lymphatic vessels.
- Duplex ultrasound using high-frequency sound waves and Doppler technology to show real-time blood flow. This may be necessary to rule out blood clots in the legs.
- Lymphangiography uses a contrast dye injected into the vessels.
Treatments for Lymphedema
There is no cure for lymphedema, but it can be controlled. Controlling lymphedema involves diligent care of your affected limb.
For mild lymphedema, you can minimize the symptoms by:
- Cleaning the affected limb. Dry it thoroughly and apply lotion
- If you shave the area, use an electric razor
- Don’t cross your legs
- Don’t carry handbags or similar object if the arm is affected
- Do not go barefoot
- Wear compression stockings or wraps
Drainage of the area using massage can also help stimulate the weakened lymphatic system.
Patients are also encouraged to lose weight, avoid injuries, and restrictive clothing that produce a tourniquet effect should be avoided.
Surgical treatments are usually only used for patients that have large lymphedemas that impede regular activities.