What is Lymphedema?

lymph systemLYMPH-A-WHAT?

I had no idea what lymphedema was before I got involved with the fitting of compression garments.  I don’t think I had ever heard the word before. Unfortunately this is not uncommon in our society. When asked about my profession I often have to go into a long explanation of what lymphedema is and how it affects the body, because so few people are aware of it or understand how it affects people.

Countless times I have helped people with swollen limbs that have never heard of lymphedema or understood why their limb was so large.  Often misdiagnosed or their condition is dismissed as just extra weight. Awareness is key to deal with this chronic disease that seems to be becoming more prevalent in our society.


Lymphedema is a chronic lymphatic disease which causes a build up of lymph fluid in the fatty tissues just under your skin. It can result in the swelling and discomfort of one or more parts of your body. This usually occurs in the arms or legs, but can also happen in the face, neck, trunk, abdomen or genitals. Sometimes this swelling happens quickly, but it can also take several weeks or months to develop.

HOW DOES IT START?what is lymphedema

There are two different kinds of lymphedema. Primary lymphedema is due to a developmental defect in the lymph system. Primary lymphedema can either be congenital or hereditary. Secondary lymphedema is caused by an injury or insult to the lymphatic system. There are many ways this can occur including surgery, infections, obesity, chronic venous insufficiency, malignant tumors or Filariasis.


It’s important to know the signs and symptoms of lymphedema and to seek medical attention as soon as possible. Even before you experience any swelling you may feel a heaviness in your limb. Skin can feel tight or hard, changing in texture. Aching, tingling, numbness or other discomfort in the area may also be an early sign of lymphedema. Less flexibility in nearby joints such as your hand, wrist, shoulder, or ankle may also indicate a problem. Clothing and jewelry may fit more snugly and be difficult to get on and off. Again, it is important to seek medical attention when you experience these symptoms.  Lymphedema may or may not be the cause. However, lymphedema is a chronic and progressive disease. The sooner it is diagnosed and treated the easier it is to manage.


There are four stages of lymphedema to describe the severity of the disease. Starting with stage zero where there is no swelling. However, there will be a feeling of heaviness or fullness in the limb. The skin may also feel tight.  In stage one there will be swelling in the affected area. The affected area can feel stiff and you may notice an increase in size of the limb. Elevating the limb at this stage will reduce it.  Stage two will see more advanced swelling and elevating the affected limb will not reduce the swelling.

In the final stage, stage three you will experience much more swelling than in stage two. Swelling can be so severe that the limb is difficult to lift or move. Skin becomes very dry and thick. Swelling can cause fluid to leak from the skin or blisters to form.  In stages two and three there is also more chance of infections to occur in the affected area.

Early stages of lymphedema, zero and one are often reversible. However, the later stages two and three may not respond as well to treatment.  Again, this is why it is so important to seek out medical attention when you first notice any signs or symptoms.


Lymphedema is most often diagnosed by the measurement and comparison of limbs. Usually if your problem limb is 2cm larger than your other limb you have lymphedema. Lymphoscintigraphy is a test that may also be used.  It is a test that uses radioactive material to see lymph vessels and determine if there is a blockage there or not. Computed tomography (CT) scans and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can also be used to see if there are blocked vessels in the swollen area.


There is no cure at this time! However, if diagnosed and treated in the early stages it can be managed. I highly recommend seeking out a specialist in lymphedema. This may be a doctor, but it could just as likely be a certified lymphedema therapist. They will assist you in designing a treatment plan that will work best for your condition as well as your lifestyle. This treatment may include massage therapy called (MLD) manual lymphatic drainage. Exercise, compression garments, pneumatic pumps, diet and in some cases surgery may also be recommended for your treatment and management of lymphedema.

lymphedema in the legMANAGING LYMPHEDEMA

Managing your lymphedema is easiest if diagnosed and treated in the early stages. Be aware of the signs and symptoms of this condition and seek medical attention when necessary. It’s best to learn as much as you can about this condition for you are your own best advocate. Two organizations I support and subscribe to are the National Lymphedema Network https://lymphnet.org/and LE&RN lymphatic education and research network. https://lymphaticnetwork.org/

Disclaimer – This blog is for general information purposes only. Furthermore, information contained in this blog is not a substitute for medical advice – always consult a licensed healthcare professional for advice on your specific condition.  Any reliance you place on this information is at your own risk.



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