Lymphedema may cause fluid to collect in one of your limbs

Your Complete Lymphedema Symptom and Treatment Guide

Lymphedema is a prevalent condition affecting over 3 million people in the United States alone. The lymphedema definition states that is a condition caused by blockages in the lymphatic system.

This condition is similar to edema, in which swelling is caused in the arms or legs, but can also occur in the head, chest, belly, and genitals as fluid collects. The swelling may range in severity from mild discomfort to disfiguring.

While unfortunately there is no cure for chronic lymphedema, there are treatments that include compression and physical therapy to relieve swelling and discomfort. Also, your lymphedema equipment may be covered by insurance.

How Exactly Does Lymphedema Work?

Lymphedema occurs when there are blockages in the lymphatic systemThe lymphatic system consist of a network of lymph vessels that are structured like blood vessels. They’re responsible for picking up excess fluid and waste from the surrounding tissues. The fluid is then carried to the lymph nodes so waste can be filtered out as the fluid is returned to the bloodstream.

If there is a blockage or if your lymph nodes are removed, it can make it difficult for the lymph vessels to carry fluid to where it needs to go. As a result, the fluid cannot be removed and will collect and cause swelling.

Lymphedema Causes and Types

There are two main types of lymphedema, primary and secondary.

Primary lymphedema, also known as hereditary lymphedema, can be present at birth, although symptoms may not develop until later in life. This condition is not attributed to any other types of medical conditions but has a few known causes.

  • Congenital lymphedema (or Milroy’s disease) is genetically inherited and evident at birth. This disorder forms at infancy and causes lymph nodes to abnormally form. It’s more common in women and accounts for 20% of primary lymphedema cases.
  • Lymphedema praecox (or Meige’s disease) causes lymphedema to onset around puberty or pregnancy. However, it can onset later in life after the age of 35. It’s four times more common in women than men.
  • Lymphedema tarda is a rare form of primary lymphedema that usually doesn’t onset until after the age of 35.

Secondary lymphedema occurs when your lymph nodes or vessels are damaged due to a variety of causes:

  • Surgery that damages the lymph nodes or vessels or blocks them may result in lymphedema. In some cases, the lymph nodes may be removed such as to check for the spread of breast cancer. Surgical procedures associated with lymphedema include burn scar excision, vein stripping, lipectomy, radiation treatment for cancer, and more.
  • Cancer or tumors can also lead to lymphedema when they damage the lymph nodes or block lymph vessels.

Other factors that may increase your risk for lymphedema include older age, obesity, and rheumatoid or psoriatic arthritis.  

Lymphedema Symptoms

This condition can occur anywhere in your body, including the head, chest, or genitals. However, it’s most common in only one arm or leg. Signs and symptoms of lymphedema include:

  • Swelling hands, fingers, arms, and legs  Lymphedema may cause your hands and fingers to swell
  • Fluid Retention
  • Flu-like aches and discomfort
  • Tingling in the fingers or the sensation of pins and needles
  • Feeling tight and heavy with a restricted range of motion
  • Hardening and thickening of the skin (fibrosis)
  • Leaving a temporary imprint or dimple in the skin when you press down

Lymphedema symptoms generally come on gradually, so if you notice sudden, rapid swelling where your affected area seems to significantly increase in size within a day or two, immediately contact your doctor. This could be a symptom of a blood clot (deep vein thrombosis) or infection. However, you should still contact your doctor if you experience any of the symptoms listed above to avoid long-lasting complications.

Mother sleeping with baby
Read more:
What is Postpartum Edema? And How Can Compression Stockings Help?

How Lymphedema is Diagnosed

First, your patient history will be fully evaluated to rule out other causes of limb swelling or fluid retention due to edema, blood clots, and more. You may need to provide family history, as it’s possible to inherit this condition. If your medical history has a surgery or condition involving the lymph nodes such as radiation therapy, it will help signal the cause of lyphedema.

Doctor performs physical exam for lymphedema Physical tests for pitting and skin pinching may be performed. If you place your finger on your swollen limb and it leaves a dimple or pit, then the condition is considered to be present. Another sign includes if your skin on your second toe or finger can be pinched or lifted due to thickening skin.

Doctors may also perform MRI or CT scans to determine the shape of your lymph nodes and to check for any abnormalities or tumors.

Doppler ultrasound scans are often used to evaluate blood flow. This test uses sound waves to identify blood clots in your veins that may be responsible for limb swelling.

Lymphoscintigraphy tests involve injecting a travel dye into your lymph vessels to trace the flow of fluids and discover blockages with the use of imaging technologies.

A Bioimpedance Spectroscopy (BIS) can be used to detect lymphedema very early on by measuring the water content of your body. It’s a small, portable, device that’s easy to use with reliable information for the diagnosis of breast-cancer-related lymphedema.

Lymphedema Prevention

The first step to preventing lymphedema is awareness. Before cancer-related surgery or radiation treatments ask your doctor if your lymph nodes and vessels will be involved or targeted. Then adhere to the following precautions:

  • Do not wear tight or restrictive clothing or accessories such as rings, tight pants, jackets, and more.
  • When have your blood pressure taken, use your other arm. Woman with lymphedema struggles to fit in her shoes
  • Avoid the use of compression stockings until advised to do so by your doctor, so they can prescribe the proper size.
  • Avoid injury by protected the affected area from cuts, scrapes, and burns to prevent infection. Also, keep the affected area clean. Regularly inspect your skin for cuts or breaks.
  • Rest the area and elevate it. Avoid strenuous activities while recovering from surgery and raise your arm and leg above the area of your heart to promote better circulation.
  • Avoid activities with rapid temperature changes such as jumping in a pool, or hot water while doing dishes. Protect yourself from extremely hot or cold conditions.
  • Maintain a healthy weight by dieting and participating in light exercises. Avoid strenuous activities and regular exercise until cleared by your doctor, or fully recovered from radiation or surgery.

Lymphedema Treatment

Depending on the type and severity you are diagnosed with, symptoms may clear up over time, especially is this condition is caught before your soft tissue is damaged. However, there isn’t an initial cure, just a series of different treatment methods used to manage lymphedema symptoms. Even if stage 1 is reversed, you’ll still be at risk for future episodes that are worse.

Woman uses a lymphedema pump to treat her lymphedema You may be prescribed a lymphedema pump, also known as an intermittent pneumatic compression pump to stimulate the flow of lymph in the correct direction. These compression pumps work by acting as a sleeve that’s inflated around the affected area with multiple chambers and overlapping cells. Air is forced into the cells to promote the movement of lymph fluid and to prevent it from collecting.

Along with compression pumps, support sleeves, elastic stockings, and bandages are used to promote lymph to flow out of extremities towards the center of your body.

There are a number of lymphedema exercises that greatly reduce symptoms as aerobic exercises help lymph fluids travel due to assisting with weight loss and promoting deep breathing.

Strength training, flexibility exercises, and stretches may also be recommended. Many find the best results by referring to a physical specialist trained in how to rehabilitate patients with lymphoma for personalized and guided exercise routines.

Receiving a lymphedema massage, also known as manual lymphatic drainage is a bit more fun than exercising. This specialized massage helps to reduce pain and swelling from affected areas.

Qualify Through Insurance

If you need a lymphedema pump then it may be covered by insurance and best of all, you get to avoid all of the hassles. Our dedicated team will contact your doctor and insurance provider to submit all of the necessary paperwork to make sure your pump is shipped directly to your front door. All you have to do is complete our qualification form online to get started, then sit back and relax.

Qualify for a Lymphedema pump through insurance


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