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About Lymphedema 

What is lymphedema? 

Lymphedema is a chronic swelling in part of the body (usually an arm or leg) due to accumulation of lymph fluid (protein and water) in the tissue spaces as a result of obstruction of veins and/or lymphatic vessels. 

The lymphatic system, along with veins and arteries, are part of the circulatory system. It removes impurities (including bacteria and cancer cells) from the circulatory system and produces disease-fighting cells (lymphocytes) for the immune system. 

If untreated, lymphedema creates a stagnant environment of protein-rich fluid, causing lymph channels to increase in size and number. It interferes with wound healing and provides an environment that promotes bacterial growth, which increases the risk of infection. If swelling and inflammation persist, the tissue thickens and hardens. This leads to decreased active motion, which can intensify the problem. 

Types and causes of lymphedema 

Primary Lymphedema can be caused by malformation of the lymph vessels. It may be present at birth or could develop later in life. 

Secondary Lymphedema is a result of damage to the lymphatic system. Causes may include traumatic injury, infection, chronic venous insufficiency and wounds. Surgical procedures such as mastectomy, lumpectomy, coronary bypass, prostatectomy, total joint replacement, radiation therapy and removal of lymph nodes also can cause lymphedema. 

Who should seek treatment? 

Individuals whose cancer operation include lymph node removal and who have any swelling of the arm, hand, chest, leg, face or any other part of the body are candidates for evaluation and should seek treatment for lymphedema. 

Individuals who have swelling due to diabetes, joint replacements, joint fractures, non-healing wounds or swelling that just develops are also candidates for lymphedema treatment. 

Can lymphedema be cured? 

With early intervention and proper treatment, lymphedema can be controlled, allowing the individual to lead a full, functional life. Frequently, however, it is a persistent condition. It is essential to manage lymphedema. Techniques exist to reduce swelling and manage other side effects. 

For more information on the Lymphedema Treatment Center at the Virginia G. Piper Cancer Center, please call 480-323-1100.