Uncomfortable and even painful swelling can occur in the body for many reasons, including lymphedema. Primary lymphedema is a relatively rare condition, affecting 1 in 100,000 people, while secondary lymphedema is more common. One in 1,000 people in the U.S. will experience secondary lymphedema.
How does this disease develop? What are the risk factors? The answers to these questions are different depending on the type of lymphedema — primary or secondary. Learn about both types of the disease below and how to manage the condition.
Lymphedema is a chronic condition that causes swelling in the body. The swelling most commonly occurs in the arms and legs, but it can happen anywhere in the body, including the hands, chest, neck, face and genitals. A collection of excess lymph fluid causes swelling.
Lymph fluid is a vital part of the lymphatic system, which also includes lymph nodes, lymphatic vessels, adenoids, the tonsils, the thymus and the spleen. The lymphatic system moves lymph fluid, which contains white blood cells, throughout the body. This process helps remove toxins and waste from the body, making the lymphatic system part of our immune system.
Lymphedema occurs when lymph accumulates and the lymphatic system is unable to drain it. The lymph nodes may have been damaged or blocked. Without draining, this high-protein fluid builds up and causes the swelling associated with lymphedema.
Certain conditions can increase the risk of developing lymphedema. Obesity and older age are considered risk factors for lymphedema. Additionally, certain types of arthritis are associated with a higher risk of lymphedema.
Lymphedema is most easily recognized by visible swelling. But, swelling, particularly in the early stages of the condition, may be difficult to spot. If the arm changes even just two centimeters in diameter, this could suggest the development of lymphedema. If you know you are at risk of developing lymphedema, take note if an item of clothing that previously fit well feels tight on your arms or legs.
You may experience other symptoms of this condition before you can see swelling. You can experience swelling, along with other symptoms, in varying levels of severity throughout your entire experience with the condition.
In addition to swelling, symptoms of lymphedema include:
Your symptoms can help your doctor make a formal lymphedema diagnosis, but they may order tests to understand the cause of the condition. Imaging tests like an MRI scan, CT scan and Doppler ultrasound can provide a visual of the lymphatic system and pinpoint any blockages responsible for the fluid buildup.
Various factors, including genetic conditions, infection and cancer treatment, can cause lymphedema. Primary and secondary lymphedema have varying causes. So what is the difference between primary and secondary lymphedema?
Primary lymphedema occurs because of a genetic condition. Aplasia, a birth anomaly where organs or limbs do not develop, can affect the lymphatic system. In this case, parts of the system, such as lymph nodes, never developed in the body. Hypoplasia, where parts of the lymphatic system are underdeveloped, and hyperplasia, where lymph collectors are larger than normal, can also cause lymphedema.
Aplasia, hypoplasia and hyperplasia can affect many different parts of the body and can be related to a number of other conditions. These terms do not necessarily mean someone has or will have lymphedema. The three main types of primary lymphedema are:
Secondary lymphedema is acquired, meaning another disease or outside factor causes it. Some of the potential causes of secondary lymphedema include:
Lymphedema cannot be cured at this time. It is possible to reverse the effects of mild lymphedema, or stage 1, but the risk for the return or worsening of symptoms is still possible. Right now, treatment focuses on managing symptoms to improve quality of life.
Early detection is key in treating lymphedema. If this condition is left untreated, the severe swelling it causes can lead to permanent changes to the body's tissue. If you know you are at risk for developing lymphedema, there are some steps you can take to watch for symptoms. You can engage in self-lymphatic massage to help promote proper drainage, for instance.
Following cancer treatment and surgery, you can take steps to help prevent secondary lymphedema, including:
You can also watch for any of the symptoms associated with the condition, even mild swelling, and talk to your doctor immediately. Monitoring and early detection can help prevent lymphedema from becoming more serious. Ask your doctor if they have experience treating lymphedema or search for a provider who does. Lymphedema can sometimes be difficult to diagnose, and not all providers specialize in treating this condition.
The symptoms of lymphedema can come and go. Some people need continuous treatment, while others may only require treatment when symptoms flare up.
Although primary and secondary lymphedema are chronic conditions, there are several approaches to treating it and managing symptoms, including:
Whether you suffer from primary or secondary lymphedema, we can help. Post Acute Medical's Lymphedema Management Program focuses on addressing your symptoms to improve quality of life. Here is what you can expect from a treatment plan developed through our program:
We also work closely with you to provide support for the psychological impact of lymphedema. The effects on your physical appearance and the pain caused by the disease can be significant. We help you to develop coping skills and improve your self-esteem.
Lymphedema is a chronic condition that can have a serious impact on your quality of life. Treatment can help you to manage the condition and alleviate your symptoms. Post Acute Medical has several hospitals specializing in this condition, including:
Find a location near you to start treating your condition and receive the support you need to improve your quality of life.