What is lymphedema?
Lymphedema is a collection of
fluid that causes swelling (edema) in the arms and legs.
What causes lymphedema?
One of the causes of
lymphedema is surgery to remove
lymph nodes , usually during cancer treatment. Normally, lymph nodes filter
fluid as it flows through them, trapping bacteria, viruses, and other foreign
substances, which are then destroyed by special white blood cells called
lymphocytes. Without normal
lymph drainage, fluid can build up in the affected arm
or leg, and lymphedema can develop. Medicines such as tamoxifen (Nolvadex),
radiation therapy, and injury to the lymph nodes can
also cause lymphedema. This type is called secondary lymphedema.
Primary lymphedema can be present at birth or develop during puberty or
adulthood. The cause of primary lymphedema is not known.
What are the symptoms?
Symptoms of lymphedema
include feeling as though your clothes, rings, wristwatches, or bracelets are
too tight; a feeling of fullness in your arms or legs; and less flexibility in
your wrists, hands, and ankles.
How is it treated?
Treatment for lymphedema
depends on its cause and includes wearing compression garments such as
stockings or sleeves, proper diet and skin care, and fluid drainage.
Elevating an arm or leg that has swelling can help ease the drainage of
lymph fluid from the affected limb. Whenever possible, rest a swollen arm or
leg on a comfortable surface, above the level of your heart. Don't put pressure
on your armpit or groin area, and don't hold a limb up without support for very
long since this can increase swelling.
Gentle exercise can help
reduce swelling. The use of muscles during exercise naturally helps lymph fluid
to circulate, which can reduce swelling. But exercise also increases blood
flow to the muscles being used, which can increase the amount of lymph fluid
present. If you have swelling, it is important to properly bandage an affected
limb before exercising. Ask your doctor how to use a bandage for
this purpose and what exercises are appropriate for your condition.
After surgery or radiation treatment
If you have had surgery to
remove some lymph nodes, use your affected arm or leg as normally as possible.
Most people are healed about 4 to 6 weeks after surgery, and able to go back to
their normal activities.