Lymphedema (lim-fa-dee-ma) is a chronic swelling of a body part that does not go away. It occurs most often in the legs or arms, but can also occur in the face, neck, chest, abdomen, or genitals. It is caused by a buildup of lymph fluid in the skin that leads to swelling (edema), pain, discomfort, and an increased risk of infection and wounds.
Some people are born with lymphedema due to the lymphatic system not developing properly. Others develop swelling because the system is overwhelmed or damaged due to vein issues, infection, surgery, radiation, or other cause. Lymphedema affects all ages and may occur years, even decades, after cancer treatment or trauma. For cancer survivors, the biggest risk of lymphedema follows treatment for breast, prostate, ,or cervical cancers, or melanoma. You are at risk if you have had surgery to remove lymph nodes and/or radiation therapy.
If untreated, lymphedema creates an unhealthy environment, similar to a swamp, that interferes with wound healing and increases the risk of infection. If swelling and inflammation continue, the skin thickens and hardens (fibrosis), and leaking fluid, massive swelling and skin changes, such as warty growths, can develop. This makes it difficult to move your joints. Even when the swelling is relatively mild, it can make wearing regular clothes and shoes more difficult, limit activities, and increase the risk for infections.
There is no cure for lymphedema at this time. However, when diagnosed and treated early, you can manage it and prevent it from leading to more serious health problems.
WHAT IS THE LYMPHATIC SYSTEM AND WHAT CAUSES LYMPHEDEMA?
The lymphatic system covers the body like a 3-dimensional net, and is a complex network of nodes and vessels that serve as the body’s waste collection system, collecting, transporting, and filtering cell waste and by-products, as well as transporting white blood cells for immunity. The lymph system is a network of organs, lymph nodes, lymph ducts, and lymph vessels that make and move lymph from tissues to the bloodstream. It removes impurities (including bacteria and cancer cells) from the circulatory system and produces disease-fighting cells (lymphocytes) for the immune system.
There are approximately 500-700 lymph nodes located all around the body.
Lymph tissue is also found in the tonsils, thymus, spleen, intestinal wall and bone marrow. Lymph fluid contains white blood cells that help to fight infection. Lymph nodes work to block infection by filtering out toxins and germs before the fluid returns to the blood stream. Lymph vessels are the transit system that lymph fluid travels along.
Unlike blood, which is pumped by the heart, lymph is not pumped.
Instead, the flow of lymph is caused by the rhythmic pulsation of the lymph vessel walls and is assisted by the pumping or contraction of muscles. Therefore, it is vital that you remain active to assist with managing your condition.
Both the venous and lymphatic systems have the job of removing waste substances, with the veins handling smaller particles and the lymph vessels handling the larger molecules, such as proteins, that cannot fit into the veins. Consider the veins as the plumbing in your house, where anything that can be flushed is handled through the pipes. Your lymph system handles all larger waste that needs to be broken down, similar to
garbage and recycling collection.
It is clear that damage to the lymphatic system means that protein, wastes, and fluid simply remain where they are in the tissues resulting in swelling known as lymphedema. If left untreated, this stagnant fluid causes chronic inflammation, injures body tissues, and increases your risk for infection. Tissues may harden over time, limiting range of motion and function, and make treatment more difficult; therefore, it is important to start treatment as early as possible.