Types of Lymphedema


About Lymphedema

Lymphedema is a swelling due to abnormal buildup of fluid in body tissues that can occur when the lymphatic system is improperly developed or damaged through trauma or injury. Often becoming a chronic condition, it occurs most frequently in the limbs but can affect other parts of the body.

About the Lymphatic System

The lymphatic system plays an important role in the immune system and helps maintain the balance of fluids in the body. Lymph nodes filter out harmful cells for removal by the body’s defense system. Lymph vessels carry lymph, composed of fluid, protein and cellular products, from body tissues back towards the heart. Lymph flow is aided by contraction of lymph vessels, muscle movement during exercise, and deep breathing.

Types of Lymphedema

There are two main types of lymphedema: primary and secondary. Primary lymphedema, due to a congenital defect, appears at birth or later in life. Secondary lymphedema occurs when the lymphatic system is damaged as a result of trauma, surgery, or radiation. It can be a side effect of cancer-related surgeries that require the removal of lymph nodes. Lymphedema may occur months or years after treatment. Lymphedema can also occur as a side effect of other conditions such as chronic venous insufficiency or severe obesity.

Lymphedema Signs and Symptoms

  • Swelling – gradual or sudden seen by Indentation of the skin when pressed by tight clothing or jewelry
  • Feelings of heaviness, tightness
  • Achiness or bursting or shooting pain
  • Increased swelling on hot, humid days or after exertion.

Early Diagnosis and Treatment Yield Best Results

Do not ignore symptoms. See your doctor or a specialized lymphedema therapist for an evaluation. Early treatment helps minimize swelling and reduce complications.

Complications of Lymphedema if Left Untreated

  • Infection, called cellulitis or erysipelas, is the greatest danger and requires urgent antibiotic treatment.
  • Delayed wound healing
  • Skin and tissue hardening
  • Limited flexibility
  • Problems associated with lymphedema may lead to difficulty in carrying out daily tasks and to psychological distress

Seek Immediate Medical Treatment if You Experience These Signs of Cellulitis:

  • Red blotches, or itchy spreading rash
  • Increased swelling
  • Increased temperature of the skin
  • Sudden onset of high fever and chills

Managing your lymphedema

Treatment goals are to reduce swelling by compression and to improve lymphatic drainage. Your therapist will evaluate the stage and severity of the lymphedema and consider your medical history before proposing an individual treatment plan. Learning how to manage your lymphedema through continuing self-care is vital to treatment success. Your therapist should provide education, tools and resources to guide you.

For more information about lymphedema and the lymphatic system in general: