Lymphedema refers to a swelling caused by excess fluid build-up within bodily tissues. The condition is a result of lymphatic obstruction, a blockage of the lymph vessels that facilitate the movement of immune cells through the body and drain fluid from the tissues. The blockage prevents fluid from draining back into the bloodstream and it therefore accumulates in one place, often resulting in pain and disfigurement of the affected limb.
Upper extremity lymphedema affects the arms. It is the most common form of the condition and often occurs following surgery to treat breast cancer where lymph tissue is removed from the armpits, an area which forms part of lymphatic drainage for the arm. Lower extremity lymphedema manifests within the legs and can also result from trauma to the lymph nodes, resulting in a build up of lymph fluid and subsequent blockage.
There are several other potential causes of lymphatic obstruction, including various types of infection, injury, tumours and radiation therapy. It can also be a congenital condition resulting from improper formation of the lymphatic vessels before birth.
Chronic swelling is the most obvious symptom of lymphedema and can sometimes be accompanied by impaired movement in the affected limb. There may also be evidence of problems with healing, ulcers, skin breakdown and potential infection.
Lymphedema is a debilitating condition that unfortunately is progressive and currently has no cure. However, there are a variety of treatment options available such as compression bandages and stockings. Bandages can be used for both upper and lower extremity lymphedema and will usually be multilayered for the best results. Compression stockings are suitable for the legs and feet and are available in a number of grades and sizes. Good hygiene is also important to ensure any damaged areas of skin do not become infected.
Lymph massage may be employed as this can help to drain the excess fluid, as can certain forms of exercise, although these should only be undertaken with medical guidance. More drastic measures include liposuction and surgery to remove areas of lymphatic tissue.