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Lymphedema is a condition in which excess lymphatic fluid collects in the interstitial tissue. This abnormal build up of fluid causes swelling in specific areas of the body, usually in the arms or legs. Swelling can also occur in other parts of the body, such as the breast or chest wall.
The lymphatic system plays an integral role in the body’s immune system. This network of vessels and nodes transports and filters lymph fluid containing lymphocytes (white blood cells responsible for fighting infection and disease) from tissues and organs. The lymphatic system also removes harmful substances, such as bacteria, from lymph fluid before returning it to the bloodstream.
Lymphedema can develop when there is a change in the structure of the lymph system. For instance, lymph nodes and vessels may be missing, impaired, damaged, or removed. This can restrict or interrupt the normal flow of lymphatic fluid in the affected area of the body.
Lymph nodes are found throughout the body, with clusters found in the neck, chest, underarms, abdomen, groin, and pelvic regions.
There are two types of lymphedema:
The following are some potential causes of lymphedema:
While lymphedema is most often associated with breast cancer, it can result from treatment for other cancers, such as prostate cancer, gynecological cancers, lymphoma, and melanoma. The greater the number of lymph nodes removed, the higher the risk for developing lymphedema.
While lymphedema can develop in any part of the body, it most often affects the arms or legs. For instance, if lymphedema develops after breast cancer treatment, it can affect the area around the breast and underarm, as well as the arm closest to the surgery site.
The following are some potential symptoms of lymphedema:
The course of lymphedema varies from person to person, and swelling can range from mild to severe. Lymphedema can occur within a few days, weeks, months, or even years after surgery or during the course of radiation therapy. It commonly develops very slowly, becoming noticeable 18 to 24 months after cancer treatment. Early diagnosis and treatment for lymphedema is important to help reduce symptoms and prevent the condition from progressing.
Lymphedema treatments vary from person to person, depending on the severity and cause. Treatment may include skin care, manual lymph drainage, gentle massage, and light exercises to help stimulate the lymphatic system. Wearing compression bandages, pumps, or garments (e.g., sleeves, stockings) can also help prevent additional fluid from accumulating in the tissue. In addition, medications can help reduce inflammation, prevent blood clots, and treat infections.
When lymphedema goes untreated, the lymph fluid that collects in the tissues can be very uncomfortable. This accumulation of protein-rich fluid can lead to an increase in swelling and a hardening of the tissue, which can cause bacteria to form and an infection to develop. Untreated lymphedema can also lead to decreased function and mobility in the affected limb, skin breakdown, and other complications.
Fortunately, with proper care and treatment, lymphedema may be prevented or controlled. And, while lymphedema can cause a great deal of distress, knowing you have choices in how to manage the condition may help you better cope with the situation.
NOTE: THIS INFORMATION IS NOT INTENDED NOR IMPLIED TO BE A SUBSTITUTE FOR PROFESSIONAL MEDICAL ADVICE. YOU SHOULD ALWAYS REPORT ANY SYMPTOMS OF LYMPHEDEMA TO YOUR PHYSICIAN IMMEDIATELY.
NOTE: THIS INFORMATION IS NOT INTENDED NOR IMPLIED TO BE A SUBSTITUTE FOR PROFESSIONAL MEDICAL ADVICE. ALWAYS SEEK THE ADVICE OF YOUR PHYSICIAN OR OTHER QUALIFIED HEALTHCARE PROVIDER REGARDING THE MANAGEMENT OF LYMPHEDEMA.
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