Lymphedema: Symptoms & Signs

  • 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.

Lymphedema refers to swelling of any part of the body due to poor functioning of the lymphatic channels that drain away excess fluid. It can occur due to damage to the lymph nodes or blockage of the lymphatic channels. In other cases, it is present from birth as part of an inborn abnormality. Symptoms include swelling of the affected body part with skin changes that can include thickening, dimpling, scaling, redness, pain, and warmth. The involved extremity (arm or leg) may feel heavy and cause fatigue and limited range of motion. Other symptoms and signs that can accompany the swelling include

Causes of a lymphedema

Lymphedema (known as primary lymphedema) may be present at birth and includes the genetic condition known as Milroy disease. Lymphedema praecox is the most common form of primary lymphedema. Meige disease or lymphedema tarda is primary lymphedema that becomes evident after 35 years of age. Secondary lymphedema develops when the lymphatic system is blocked or damaged. In the U.S., surgery for breast cancer, particularly when combined with radiation therapy, is the most common cause. Other causes include any type of surgical procedure that requires removal of regional lymph nodes or lymph vessels. Damage to lymph nodes and channels that can cause lymphedema also include trauma, burns, radiation, infections, or compression or invasion of lymph nodes by tumors. Worldwide, filariasis (infestation of lymph nodes by the parasite Wuchereria bancrofti) is the most common cause of lymphedema.

REFERENCE:

Kasper, D.L., et al., eds. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 19th Ed. United States: McGraw-Hill Education, 2015.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 9/16/2017

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