Lymphedema refers to abnormal and persistent swelling and can occur in the arms or legs. Lymphedema occurs when the flow of lymph fluid is obstructed. This condition is usually isolated to a single arm or leg, although it can present itself on multiple limbs.
In America it occurs most commonly after cancer treatment. For example, lymphedema of the arm can develop after mastectomy and lymph node removal procedures.
What Causes Lymphedema?
The lymphatic system is a network of specialized vessels that take swelling fluid from body parts and return it to the bloodstream. These vessels exist nearly everywhere throughout the body. Lymph vessels also carry proteins, lipids and waste products from the tissues into the lymph nodes. When blood flow to the lymphatic system is blocked and the fluids are unable to pass through the tissues, lymphedema can occur.
Primary lymphedema is when lymphedema is not in response to something, it is congenital, and starts at birth. This is extremely rare. Secondary lymphedema, the more common variety, occurs as a result of damage to otherwise normal lymph vessels. Secondary lymphedema may occur after breast cancer surgery when lymph nodes in the armpit are sampled or radiated. This can cause damage to lymph vessels, creating blockage and contributing to lymphedema.
Lymphedema is characterized by swelling that is persistent, and sometimes painful, unsightly or burdensome. Following breast cancer treatment, lymphedema is most often seen in the arms. The affected limb can sometimes swell to several times its normal size. More frequently, swelling is subtle but there is a visible asymmetry compared to the other arm.
If you have lymphedema, you may experience heaviness in your arm or leg. The skin may feel hard or thick, and this thickness can increase over time. The added weight may even lead to fatigue. Over time, you may experience a restricted range of motion due to excess fluid accumulation. You may also notice severe aching or discomfort. If left untreated, infections can occur.
It is important to note that every case is different. Some patients may not feel any pain initially. You may only notice subtle changes in your arms. For instance, your watch, rings or bracelets may suddenly start to feel too tight, even though you haven’t gained any weight. Compare the circumference of both arms or legs and see if there is a difference.
If you have symptoms of lymphedema, contact a medical professional who routinely treats lymphedema. If left untreated, swelling can get considerably worse and more severe symptoms may emerge.