Lymphedema refers to swelling that usually occurs in one of your arms or legs. Sometimes both arms or both legs swell.
Lymphedema is most often caused by removing or damaging your lymph nodes as part of cancer treatment. It results from a blockage in your lymphatic system, which is part of your immune system. The blockage prevents lymphatic fluid from draining well, and the build-up of fluid leads to swelling.
Open popup dialog Picture of a person with lymphedema of the legs
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Signs and symptoms of lymphedema that appear in the affected arm or leg include:
Swelling of part or all of your arm or leg, including your fingers or toes
A feeling of heaviness or tightness
Restricted range of motion
Pain or discomfort
Your lymphatic system is important to keep your body healthy. It circulates protein-rich lymph fluid around your body and collects bacteria, viruses, and waste. Your lymphatic system transports this fluid and pollutants through your lymph vessels, which lead to the lymph nodes. The waste is then filtered by lymphocytes – anti-infectious cells that live in your lymph nodes – and eventually flushed out of your body.
Factors that can increase your risk of developing lymphedema after cancer, treatment for cancer, or other secondary causes include:
Overweight or obese
Rheumatoid or psoriatic arthritis
Lymphedema in your arm or leg can cause serious complications, such as:
Infections. Possible infections that can result from lymphedema are a severe bacterial infection of the skin (cellulitis) and an infection of the lymphatic vessels (lymphangitis). Even the slightest injury to the arm or leg can be an entry point for infection.
Lymphangiosarcoma. This rare form of soft tissue cancer can result from more severe cases of untreated lymphedema. Possible signs of a lymphangiosarcoma are blue-red or purple markings on the skin.
If you have had or are going to have surgery for cancer, ask your doctor if your procedure affects your lymph nodes or vessels. Ask if your radiation therapy is targeting the lymph nodes so that you are aware of the possible risks.
To reduce your risk of lymphedema, try the following:
Protect your arm or leg and avoid harming yourself. Cuts, scratches, and burns can cause infection. Protect yourself from sharp objects. For example, shave with an electric razor, wear gloves when gardening or cooking, and use a thimble when sewing. If possible, avoid medical procedures such as blood tests and vaccinations on your affected limb.
Rest your arm or leg while you recover. After cancer treatment, exercise and stretching are encouraged. However, avoid strenuous activities until you have recovered from surgery or radiation therapy.
Avoid heat on your arm or leg. Do not apply ice or heat, e.g. B. with a heating pad on the affected limb. Also, protect your affected limbs from extreme cold.
Raise your arm or leg. If possible, raise your affected limb above the level of your heart.