Lymphedema is an uncomfortable condition that can lead to serious complications. Below is some basic information about this condition and the treatment options available.
What Is Lymphedema?
Lymphedema is a condition that occurs when one of the arms or legs swells. In some cases, lymphedema may affect both arms or both legs at the same time. This condition most commonly occurs after your lymph nodes are removed or damaged in cancer treatment. Once these lymph nodes are missing or damaged, blockages can develop. This prevents the lymph fluid from draining properly, which leads to swelling.
Symptoms of Lymphedema:
- Aching and discomfort in the affected limb
- Noticeable swelling in part or all of an affected limb, including toes or fingers
- Loss of range of motion
- Feelings of tightness and heaviness
- Thickening and/or hardening of the skin
Symptoms caused by lymphedema can vary in severity considerably, from symptoms that are barely noticeable to symptoms that drastically change your appearance and your ability to move the affected limb.
Why Does It Occur?
The lymphatic system keeps the body healthy by circulating lymph fluid throughout the body. This fluid is responsible for removing viruses, bacteria and waste products. When lymphatic vessels can’t remove this fluid from the body properly, the fluid builds up and causes the limb to swell.
Although most cases of lymphedema occur after cancer treatment, other causes are possible. Other possible causes of lymphedema include cancer itself, infection and certain rare disorders. Risk factors for lymphedema include old age, psoriatic arthritis, rheumatoid arthritis and carrying excess weight.
If lymphedema isn’t properly treated, complications may occur. One of the possible complications of lymphedema is lymphangiosarcoma, which is a rare form of soft tissue cancer. Another possible complication of untreated lymphedema is infection. Infections may occur in the skin or the lymph vessels themselves.
Treatment for Lymphedema
There is no cure for lymphedema at this time, but several treatment options may improve the symptoms. One of the possible treatments is known as “decongestive therapy.” This approach may involve using compression bandages, arm pumps, exercise and/or dietary changes to reduce swelling in the area. Patients approaching treatment in this way will also need to take steps to prevent infection.
For more severe cases of lymphedema, surgical treatments may be recommended. Several different types of surgical procedures exist, including vascularized lymph node transfer, lymphaticovenous anastomosis, the Charles procedure and liposuction.
Dr. Raffi Krikorian of St. Louis Vein and Endovascular is a leading St. Louis-based lymphedema expert. To find out whether you are a candidate for lymphedema treatment, contact our clinic today.