Lymphedema (cont.)

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What are complications of lymphedema?

As noted before, secondary infections of the skin and underlying tissues can complicate lymphedema. Inflammation of the skin and connective tissues, known as cellulitis, and inflammation of the lymphatic vessels (lymphangitis) are common complications of lymphedema. Deep venous thrombosis (formation of blood clots in the deeper veins) is also a known complication of lymphedema. Impairment of functioning in the affected area and cosmetic issues are further complications of lymphedema.

Those who have had chronic, long-term lymphedema for more than 10 years have a 10% chance of developing a cancer of the lymphatic vessels known as lymphangiosarcoma. The cancer begins as a reddish or purplish lump visible on the skin and spreads rapidly. This is an aggressive cancer that is treated by amputation of the affected limb. Even with treatment, the prognosis is poor, with less than 10% of patients surviving after 5 years.

Can lymphedema be prevented?

Primary lymphedema cannot be prevented, but measures can be taken to reduce the risk of developing lymphedema if one is at risk for secondary lymphedema, such as after cancer surgery or radiation treatment.

The following steps may help reduce the risk of developing lymphedema in those at risk for secondary lymphedema:

  • Keep the affected arm or leg elevated above the level of the heart, when possible.
  • Avoid tight or constricting garments or jewelry (also avoid the use of blood pressure cuffs on an affected arm).
  • Do not apply a heating pad to the affected area or use hot tubs, steam baths, etc.
  • Keep the body adequately hydrated.
  • Avoid heavy lifting and forceful activity with the affected limb; but normal, light activity is encouraged.
  • Do not carry a heavy purse on an affected arm.
  • Practice thorough and careful skin hygiene.
  • Avoid insect bites and sunburns.

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