Lymphedema

  • Medical Author:
    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.

  • Medical Editor: William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR
    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    Dr. Shiel received a Bachelor of Science degree with honors from the University of Notre Dame. There he was involved in research in radiation biology and received the Huisking Scholarship. After graduating from St. Louis University School of Medicine, he completed his Internal Medicine residency and Rheumatology fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. He is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Rheumatology.

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Lymphedema Picture

A common chronic, debilitating condition in which excess fluid called lymph collects in tissues and causes swelling (edema) in them.

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Lymphedema facts

  • Lymphedema is a condition that results from impaired flow of the lymphatic system.
  • Symptoms of lymphedema include swelling in one or more extremities. The swelling may range from mild to severe and disfiguring.
  • Primary lymphedema is present at birth; secondary lymphedema develops as a result of damage to or dysfunction of the lymphatic system.
  • Breast cancer treatment is the most common cause of lymphedema in the U.S.
  • While there is no cure for lymphedema, compression treatments and physical therapy may help reduce the swelling and discomfort.

What is lymphedema?

Lymphedema is swelling in one or more extremities that results from impaired flow of the lymphatic system.

The lymphatic system is a network of specialized vessels (lymph vessels) throughout the body whose purpose is to collect excess lymph fluid with proteins, lipids, and waste products from the tissues. This fluid is then carried to the lymph nodes, which filter waste products and contain infection-fighting cells called lymphocytes. The excess fluid in the lymph vessels is eventually returned to the bloodstream. When the lymph vessels are blocked or unable to carry lymph fluid away from the tissues, localized swelling (lymphedema) is the result.

Lymphedema most often affects a single arm or leg, but in uncommon situations both limbs are affected.

  • Primary lymphedema is the result of an anatomical abnormality of the lymph vessels and is a rare, inherited condition.
  • Secondary lymphedema results from an identifiable damage to or obstruction of normally-functioning lymph vessels and nodes.
  • Worldwide, lymphedema is most commonly caused by filariasis (a parasite infection), but in the U.S., lymphedema most commonly occurs in women who have had breast cancer surgery, particularly when followed by radiation treatment.

What does lymphedema look like (pictures)?

Mild lymphedema first may be noticed as a feeling of heaviness, tingling, tightness, warmth, or shooting pains in the affected extremity. These symptoms may be present before there is obvious swelling of an arm or leg. Other signs and symptoms of early or mild lymphedema include:

  • a decreased ability to see or feel the veins or tendons in the extremities,
  • tightness of jewelry or clothing,
  • redness of the skin,
  • asymmetrical appearance of the extremities,
  • tightness or reduced flexibility in the joints, and
  • slight puffiness of the skin.

As lymphedema progresses to a more moderate to severe state, the swelling of the involved extremity becomes more pronounced. The other symptoms mentioned above also persist with moderate or severe lymphedema.

Picture of Lymphedema
Picture of areas of the body with lymphedema

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 6/8/2015

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