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Lymphedema is abnormal swelling due to the presence of excess lymphatic fluid within the tissues. This swelling occurs when the lymphatic system malfunctions or is damaged.
Lymphedema occurs most commonly in the extremities (arms or legs); however, it can also affect the trunk, breast, abdomen, neck, head, and or genitals. Symptoms can be uncomfortable, painful and may become chronic. In addition to being uncomfortable and unsightly, lympedema increases the risk of severe infection from minor injuries.
Lymphedema is caused by the blockage or damage to the lymph system that prevents the normal flow of fluid. Lymphoma and its treatments put patients at risk for secondary lymphedema (as opposed to primary lymphedema which is hereditary), even after the lymphoma goes into remission. Surgery or radiation treatment for lymphoma and other types of cancer such as breast and testicular cancers, blood vessel surgery and liposuction are all possible causes of lymphedema.
As discussed above, localized swelling is the primary symptom. Early signs may include:
- Soreness, weakness, redness, heaviness, or tightness in one of your limbs
- Decreased flexibility in a wrist or ankle
- Tight-fitting rings or shoes.
There is no medical cure for lymphedema. The best option is to care for it as best as possible to prevent it from getting worse. Hopefully, the lymph system will heal sufficiently for it to go away.
Treatment can involve everything from mild exercises various forms of compression. In all cases, it is very important for the patient to keep the affected limb clean, dry, and free from cuts and scratches. Manual drainage stimulated by massage may also be an option. In severe cases, surgical removal of tissue might be required.
Ideally a physician can work with a lymphedema patient to develop an overall treatment strategy known as "complex decongestive therapy." It is recommended that lymphedema patients or those at risk for lymphedema wear a medical ID bracelet or necklace to notify medical personnel of the risks and potential complications such as infections.