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Lymphedema is a condition that occurs when there is fluid retention in the lymphatic system that also leads to tissue swelling. The swelling is seen mostly in the arms or legs.


An abnormal buildup of lymph fluid in the lymphatic system is called as lymphedema or lymphatic obstruction. It mostly causes swelling of both or any one of the arm or leg. In some  cases, the swelling can occur in other parts as well like the chest, breast, trunk, underarms or back. This condition occurs when the lymphatic system is damaged, impaired or absent.

The lymph is a clear fluid that runs throughout the body. It helps removing bacteria and other waste matter from the tissues. When too much of this fluid collects in a particular area of the body, it leads to lymphedema. It is very common in patients who have undergone treatment for breast cancer.


There are basically two types of lymphedema primary and secondary. Primary lymphedema is a rare condition that occurs when certain lymph nodes are absent at birth. It can even occur due to certain abnormalities of the lymphatic system. Secondary lymphedema occurs when there is a blockage, impairment or damage to the lymph vessels. This causes blockage of the flow of lymph fluid leading to its retention and subsequent swelling of the affected tissues.


Lymphedema occurs due to changes in the lymphatic system. The fluid cannot drain through the lymph vessels and starts building up under the skin. Thus, leading to edema or swelling of the tissues. Some of the causes of lymphedema according to the type are as follows:

Primary lymphedema

Primary lymphedema occurs without any known infection or injury. When the symptoms appear, the exact cause is determined. These causes include congenital, that is, absence of certain lymph vessels at birth. Depending on the appearance of symptoms, it is further classified as congenital lymphedema, lymphedema praecox or Meige disease.

Secondary Lympedema

Secondary lymphedema is very common in patients undergoing breast cancer treatment. During a breast cancer surgery, the doctor may  have to  remove  certain lymph nodes around the tumor. This causes problems in the flow of fluid around the arms, legs and other parts into the chest. This causes fluid retention leading to swelling.

An infection of the lymphatic system can also lead to lymphedema. A parasite called Filariasis is the most common infectious agent that blocks the lymph vessels, leading to swelling and edema. Cancer of the lymph nodes or cancer cells from other cancers can block the lymphatic system.

At times, radiation treatment can also cause damage to the lymph nodes and vessels.


Symptoms of lymphedema include:

  • Feeling heavy, tight or full in areas of the arm, leg, abdomen or genitals
  • Swelling of the foot, ankle, calf and knee
  • Dull ache or discomfort in affected area
  • Decrease in flexibility of joints
  • Clothes, watches or rings, bracelets, etc. become tight as if one has suddenly gained weight
  • Skin initially appears soft and raised. As the symptoms progress, the skin becomes hard, stiff, red and feels warm to touch


The doctor will first determine it is the lymph nodes that are causing the swelling. In case lymphedema isn’t the obvious cause, the doctor may conduct certain tests to confirm. These include:

  • CT Scan
  • MRI
  • Doppler ultrasound
  • Lymphoscintigraphy


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There is no cure for lymphedema. The treatment focuses on better management of the condition. Some of these methods include:

  • Exercises that help in movement of the affected arm or leg and helps in moving the fluid around the lymph vessels.
  • One should avoid carrying out vigorous physical activity or repetitive actions.
  • Massage will help in draining the excessive fluids in the tissues.
  • Wear compression bandage, stockings or sleeves.


Lymphedema is a chronic condition without any cure. It can however be  managed successfully by following treatment as well as care for life. The swelling, can reduce, but will never disappear.


Patients detected with problems with the lympathic system can prevent as well as manage lymphedema by following the below given tips:

  • Eat healthy. It is important that one includes proper nutrition in their diet. One should avoid salt, fats and alcohol. Eat plenty of fresh fruits, vegetables, as well as whole grain foods. Drink at least 8 glasses of water everyday.
  • It is important to maintain an ideal body weight. Obesity makes oone more prone to swelling as well as edema.
  • Light exercises like walking, swimming, aerobics, etc. should be regularly carried out.
  • One should wash hands with disinfectants and wear gloves when working outdoors. Prevent infections as much as possible. If one suffers from a minor cut, burn or infection, make sure you apply antiseptic ointment and cover the affected area with a bandage.
  • Avoid lifting heavy loads with the affected arm.
  • Do not wear tight-fitting or well-fitted clothes, watch straps, bracelets, rings, etc. wear loose clothes and accessories to prevent fluid buildup.
  • Wear sunscreens or lotions when moving outdoors.
  • Wear compression sleeves or stockings, especially when travelling by air.
  • Stay away from extreme temperature changes. This means avoid steam baths, hot tubs and saunas.
  • Visit the doctor regularly for checkups.

Lymphedema cannot be cured, but prompt treatment will help reduce massive swelling on the body.

Written by: Saptakee sengupta
Date last updated: February 27, 2015

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