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What Is Lymphedema?

What Is Lymphedema?

Lymph nodes

There are 2 classifications of lymphedema -- primary and secondary.

Primary lymphedema is thought to be the result of a congenital abnormality of the lymph conducting system.
Secondary (or acquired) lymphedema results from damage to the lymphatic vessels and/or lymph nodes, or from functional deficiency. Infections from insect bites, serious wounds or burns can cause lymphedema when they damage or destroy lymphatics. Any type of surgery, serious injury, or radiation for cancer treatment can also cause the onset of the disease. It may also be the result of high output failure of the lymphatic circulation.

The lymphatic system is highly complex and, when functioning, moves approximately 3 liters of fluid throughout the body every day. This is done through a channel of vessels as part of the blood flow’s cleaning and filtering system. When this system is compromised, an accumulation of lymph fluid develops in the soft tissues and swelling occurs, most often in the extremities. This is known as lymphedema.



Lymphedema should not be confused with edema that is a result of venous insufficiency. It’s important to be aware that untreated venous insufficiency can progress into a combined venous/lymphatic disorder. The treatment for this is the same as lymphedema.

Symptoms of Arm Lymphedema
  • Swelling in the arm (including the fingers)
  • Heaviness or tightness in the limb
  • Restriction in the range of motion
  • Thick or hardened skin
Symptoms of Lower Leg Lymphedema
  • A full sensation in legs
  • Skin feeling tight
  • Decreased flexibility in the ankle
  • Difficulty fitting into clothing in one specific area
  • Persistent swelling

Note: If you experience any of these symptoms, it is very important that you seek immediate medical advice as early diagnosis and treatment improves both the prognosis and the condition.

Who's at Risk for Lymphedema?
  • Morbid obesity can cause secondary lymphedema by “crushing” the lymphatics
  • Lymph node removal for biopsies
  • Surgery or trauma
  • Radiation treatments, especially ones that are focused in areas that might contain “clusters” of lymph nodes
  • Deep invasive wounds that might tear, cut or damage the lymphatics
  • For primary lymphedema any person who has a family history of unknown swelling of a limb
  • Radiation and chemotherapy for cancer
  • Infection of the microscopic parasite filarial larvae, though this is more common in tropical countries
  • Radiation and chemotherapy for cancer
  • Serious infections that include lymphangitis, cellulitis or erysipelas.

The true risk factor profile for lymphedema is not known. There may be many factors that predispose an individual to developing lymphedema or that predict the progression, severity and outcome of the condition.