What is Lymphedema
The lymphatic system is where much of the body’s defense against disease and infection is located.
It is made up of lymph fluid, lymph nodes and lymph vessels
- Lymph fluid contains white blood cells that help to fight infection.
- Lymph nodes work to block infection by filtering out toxins and germs.
- Lymph vessels are the transit system that lymph fluid travels along
When the lymphatic system functions well, it helps to keep your body healthy. When the lymphatic system is faulty or has been damaged, fluid may collect in the tissues and this build up can cause swelling or other effects that could be the early signs of lymphedema.
- Some people are born with a faulty lymphatic system; it may be inherited or can occur as the fetus develops. When lymphedema is caused by a defect of the lymphatic system, it is called primary lymphedema. It may be present at birth, develop when puberty begins or in adulthood.
- Primary lymphedema is a lifelong condition with no known cure at this time. Ongoing management and care is the key to the best quality of life with primary lymphedema.
Other conditions commonly associated with Primary Lymphedema:
- Meige’s Syndrome
- Lymphedema Tarda
- Gene Mutation – flt4; FOXC2
- Chromosomal Disorders – Gorham’s Disease, Turner Syndrome, Klippel-Trenaunay Syndrome, Yellow Nail Syndrome, Noonan Syndrome to name a few
- Intestinal lymphangiectasia
- Congenital Pulmonary Lymphangiectasis
- Other people develop lymphedema due to an event that damages or blocks part of their lymphatic system. In this case, it is called secondary lymphedema.
- The most common cause of secondary lymphedema is the result of treatment for some cancers (breast, cervical, prostate and melanoma). Cancer surgery may remove or damage lymph vessels and nodes. Radiation therapy for cancer may also cause lymph vessel and node damage. Other causes of damage to the lymphatic system include trauma caused by an accident, injury or a burn.
Other conditions commonly associated with Secondary Lymphedema:
- Lymphatic Filariasis
- Non-Hodgkin and Hodgkin lymphoma
Stages of Lymphedema
Stages help classify the severity of Lymphedema. Currently, there are four (4) known stages ranging from mild to severe. Different methods are used worldwide to classify the stages. However, you can perform a simple pitting edema test to give you a rough idea (relevant for Stage 1).
Stage 0 (latent)
This stage is the least severe of all and not truly visible. You may notice some fullness, numbness, or tingling sensations.
Stage 1 (spontaneously reversible)
In this stage, you may notice there will be zero swelling in the morning, but your limb will become full and puffy as the day goes by. You can perform a simple pitting edema test.
Elevating your limb, wearing compression and performing Manual Lymph Drainage (MLD) will reduce the edema. If no preventative measures are taken, the protein-filled edema will build-up over time resulting in fibrosis.
Stage 2 (spontaneously irreversible)
Characteristics of this stage consist of a dense sponge-like texture known as fibrosis. Pitting still occurs, yet the skin takes longer to recover. The affected limb is larger than in stage 1. The swelling does not improve on its own and specific measures need to be taken to manage this condition properly.
Stage 3 (lymphostatic elephantiasis)
At this stage, the condition is considered irreversible. The skin typically becomes very tight, dry, and scaly. The fibrosis is hard and dense. The limb(s) is engorged and deformed. You are more susceptible to infections and wounds. Taking proactive health measures need to occur immediately.
Signs & Symptoms Of Lymphedema
- Full or heavy feeling in the affected body part
- Decreased mobility in the affected body part
- Clothing, watches or rings can feel tight Tightness in the skin
- Abnormal swelling in the affected body part
If you feel unwell or notice a sign of infection such as increased redness, swelling, warmth or pain to the affected limb, you should be seen by your doctor or emergency personnel immediately.
At present there is no cure for lymphedema; however, it can be successfully managed if diagnosed and treated in a timely manner.