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What is Lymphedema?

Mary McMahon
Updated Feb 27, 2024
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Lymphedema is a medical condition that is characterized by a buildup of fluid in the soft tissues of the body, most typically in the arms and legs. In addition to being painful and disfiguring, it can also greatly increase the risk of serious infection, and it requires medical treatment. Since lymphedema can recur, patients must also observe life-long precautions after a bout with this condition to avoid repeating the experience.

There are two forms of lymphedema: primary, and secondary. Both are caused by damage to the lymphatic system, which is responsible for cycling fluid through the body to transport nutrients and remove infectious materials. Primary lymphedema is caused by inherited conditions that compromise the lymphatic system, while secondary lymphedema is triggered by trauma to the lymph system. In both cases, the system is not able to work as effectively as it should, and the result is a buildup of fluid because it cannot be transported away by the lymphatic system.

Burns, surgical procedures, and radiation for conditions like cancer are all associated with lymphedema. Medical personnel are aware of the increased risks caused by these situations, and they usually take steps to reduce chances that it will occur. Blood clots, parasitic infections, and deep vein thrombosis can also trigger fluid buildup, as can the use of certain medications.

There are a number of treatments available for lymphedema. Compression bandages often help, and some schools of bodywork offer training to therapists so that they can treat the condition by stimulating the flow of lymph in the patient's body. Some patients also embark on an exercise regimen that stimulates circulation and keeps the affected limb in good condition, while surgical treatments are available for some cases.

Skincare is one of the most important issues for patients with lymphedema. Any cuts, nicks, or scrapes can become quickly infected, so people need to be careful with their swollen limbs. The tissue swelling can also cause painful, dry, or cracked skin, so the use of a regular cleaning and moisturizing regimen will help the patient feel better. A patient with a history of lymphedema must also be careful in the future, and most medical professionals try to monitor their previously affected patients for early signs so that they can use aggressive early treatments. Patients who have experienced the condition may want to indicate this on medical alert bracelets and other paperwork they carry with them, so that emergency services personnel can use the appropriate precautions.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By laluna — On Mar 31, 2009

Lymphedema can also be congenital which is rather rare, and acquired which is more common.

In congenital lymphedema the person has too few vessels that can transport lymph through the body, therefore the body will swell. The swelling is most noticeable in arms and legs.

In acquired lymphedema lymphatic vessels are either damaged or sometimes removed, due to illness.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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