Lymphedema is swelling that occurs in the arms and legs and is caused by a blockage in the lymphatic system. This swelling ranges from mild and unnoticeable to extreme and can even prevent use of the affected limb.
There Are Two Types. Primary lymphedema is not common and only occurs if you are born without lymph nodes or vessels. The more common, secondary lymphedema is brought on when there is damage to the lymph nodes or vessels. Often times, surgery or radiation therapy for cancer can lead to lymphedema. The condition can also be attributed to other trauma or infection, burns and liposuction.
Know Your Risk Factors. Surgery to remove lymph nodes—e.g. for breast cancer, radiation treatment, cancer, infection, tropical or subtropical parasites, being overweight, and a poor diet are all risk factors that can increase your chances of lymphedema.
Recognize the Symptoms. Lymphedema can begin as swelling in part of the arm or leg, including the fingers and toes or as swelling in the entire arm or leg. Related symptoms include:
- A feeling of tightness or heaviness in the arm and/or leg
- Restricted range of motion in limbs
- Aching or discomfort in the limbs
- Recurring infections
- Hardening or thickening of the skin in the arms or legs
How Can It Affect Me? While the swelling of the limbs alone can be enough to affect your daily life, other complications, such as infection, can occur with lymphedema. Lymphedema can cause the affected limbs to be more susceptible to infection. Infections of the skin or lymph nodes can result. In more severe cases—lymphedema can even lead to lymphangiosarcoma, a rare cancer of the soft tissue.
Treating Lymphedema. Although there is no cure for lymphedema, there are ways to alleviate the symptoms and control the pain. Light exercise of the affected limbs, wrapping of the limbs, massage and compression garments can all help in treating lymphedema.
Prevent it from the start. A few ways to prevent it include:
· Do not allow anyone to take blood or your blood pressure on your affected arm or leg.
· Keep your affected area clean.
· Try not to cross your legs or carry items on your shoulder if those areas are at risk.
· Maintain a healthy weight and eat properly.
· Use sunscreen when going outdoors.
· Don’t use ice packs or heating pads on the affected area.
· If you have had surgery for lymph nodes or breast cancer, consider following up with a physical therapy program.
Aventura Hospital and Medical Center’s Outpatient Rehabilitation Center sponsors a Lymphedema Support Group for individuals interested in the prevention and treatment of lymphedema symptoms. The group is on a summer hiatus and will resume this October. Meetings are held on the second Tuesday of each month from 5:00pm to 6:30pm at the Aventura Comprehensive Cancer Center. Please call 305-682-2151 for more information.
Primary and Secondary Lymphedema (Aventura Hospital)
Lymphedema Facts (National Lymphedema Network)