Lymphedema

What is Lymphedema?

Although many people have never heard of this condition, lymphedema is a common cause of leg or arm swelling due to the collection of too much lymph fluid. Nearly one million Americans are affected by this condition, and the number of people worldwide with it may soon approach 100 million*. The swelling produced by lymphedema is usually not painful, but it may cause a heavy, aching discomfort and limit a person’s ability to use his or her arms or legs, increase the risk of certain infections, or cause emotional distress due to the severe swelling of the arm or the leg.

Causes of Lymphedema:

There are three types of blood vessels in the body. Arteries deliver oxygen and nutrient-rich blood from the heart to the tissues and organs of the body and the veins return blood back to the heart to be re-oxygenated by the lungs. The lymph vessels are a third type of blood vessel that carries fluid from the tissues and organs of the body back to the veins.  The lymph vessels are long, thin-walled tubes that form a very intricate network in the arms and the legs. In some cases, these lymph vessels are absent or are damaged or destroyed, and lymph fluid accumulates in the tissues of the arm or leg causing severe swelling. Many things can damage the lymph vessels and cause lymphedema, including cancer and treatment for cancer, such as surgery or radiation therapy, infections, other surgical procedures, and certain injuries. In some cases, lymphedema is an inherited condition that is present at birth or develops during the early years of life or puberty. In these inherited cases, there is commonly a family member who also had lymphedema. In the United States, treatment for breast cancer, including surgery and radiation therapy, is one of the most common causes of lymphedema. Interestingly, the most common cause of lymphedema world wide is a certain type of infection known as filariasis.

*About the Author:
Thom W. Rooke, MD is the Krehbiel Professor of Vascular Medicine and Section Head of Vascular Medicine at the Mayo Clinic, Rochester, MN.