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What is lymphedema?

When fluid doesn't drain properly from the arms or legs, the result can be as simple as discomfort or as serious as infection. Many treatments can help.

Lymphedema is an abnormal buildup of lymph fluid that can cause swelling in the arms or legs. Lymph fluid is part of the immune system and helps defend the body against infection and cancer.

Causes

Lymphedema occurs when lymph fluid isn't able to properly drain. Possible causes include:

  • Blockage by parasitic worms or cancer cells.
  • Damage to the lymph system from infection or radiation treatment.
  • Removal of the lymph nodes. This is often done during cancer treatment.

In other cases, lymphedema happens for unknown reasons.

Symptoms

Lymphedema is most common in the arms and legs but it can happen anywhere in the body.

According to the National Cancer Institute, swelling caused by lymphedema may produce symptoms such as:

  • A full sensation in the arms or legs.
  • Decreased flexibility in the hands, wrist or ankles.
  • Difficulty fitting into clothing in one specific area.
  • Ring, wristwatch or bracelet tightness.
  • A tight feeling in the skin.

The severity of these symptoms will vary from person to person.

Who's at risk?

Anyone can get lymphedema at any time. Some children are even born with it.

Women who've had breast cancer treatment are at a higher risk for lymphedema.

For these women, the problem can affect the breast, underarm and chest, as well as the arm on the same side as the surgery, according to the American Cancer Society.

Treating lymphedema

There's no way to cure lymphedema. According to the National Lymphedema Network (NLN), possible treatments include:

  • Massaging the affected area to help drain extra fluid.
  • Bandaging the area with an elastic or compression bandage.
  • Exercising the affected area.
  • Antibiotics, if the problem is the result of an infection.

These treatments usually work best for people with mild lymphedema. For people with severe lymphedema, surgery may be necessary to remove swollen tissues.

Treatment is safe for most people. But people who also have heart failure or cancer may need to use caution. It's possible that treating lymphedema will make these two problems worse, according to the NLN.

If you have lymphedema, your doctor can help you decide on a treatment plan.

Reviewed 10/14/2020

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