Lymphedema refers to swelling that generally occurs in one of your arms or legs.
Lymphedema is most commonly caused by the removal of or damage to your lymph nodes as a part of cancer treatment. The lymph vessels can be damaged from actual surgery or from radiation therapy, which can cause a blockage in your lymphatic system. The blockage prevents lymph fluid from draining well, and the fluid buildup is what leads to visible swelling in the limb.
While there is presently no cure for lymphedema, it can be managed with early diagnosis and diligent care of your affected limb. Treatment commonly includes proper skin care of the limb, manual lymphatic drainage massage, compression bandaging to decrease swelling and exercises. Once swelling has stabilized in the limb with bandaging techniques, a compression stocking for the limb is used for long term management of the swelling. Though lymphedema is not usually painful, it does put the affected limb at risk for infection, so it important that it is treated as early as possible.
Signs and symptoms of lymphedema can include:
- Swelling of part or all of your arm or leg, including fingers or toes
- A feeling of heaviness or tightness
- Loss of motion in the limb due to tightness
- Aching or discomfort
- Recurring skin (cellulitis) infections
- Hardening and thickening of the skin (fibrosis)
The swelling caused by lymphedema ranges from mild, hardly noticeable changes in the size of your arm or leg to extreme changes that make the limb hard to use. Lymphedema in the early stages commonly goes away over night and the limb looks normal in the morning. Once the edema no longer decreases in the limb it has progressed to a more advanced stage increasing the risk for infection. Lymphedema caused by cancer treatment may not occur until months or years after treatment.