Lymphedema – symptoms, causes, risk factors & complications


This term is used for swelling that generally happens in one of your arms or legs. In some cases, it can be in both arms and both legs. It is mostly caused by the damage or removal to the lymph nodes as a part of the cancer treatment.

The lymphedema results from a blockage in the lymphatic system which is a part of the immune system. This blockage is preventing the lymph fluid from draining well and the fluid buildup leads to swelling. There is not definitive cure for lymphedema but it can be managed with early diagnosis and diligent care of your affected limb.


The signs and symptoms of lymphedema, which can happen in the affected arm or leg, include:

  • Hardening and thickening of the skin (fibrosis)
  • Recurring infections
  • Aching or discomfort
  • Restricted range of motion
  • A feeling of heaviness or tightness
  • There can be a swelling of part or all of your arm or leg, including fingers or toes

The swelling which is caused by lymphedema can range from mild and hardly noticeable changes in the size of the arm or leg to extreme changes which are making the limb hard to use. The lymphedema that is caused by cancer treatment may not happen until months or years have passed after the treatment. You should visit your doctor if you have noticed persistent swelling in your arm or leg. If you are already diagnosed with lymphedema of a limb, then you should talk with your doctor if there is a sudden dramatic increase in the size of the involved limb because this may mean that a new process is happening.



We know that the lymphatic system is important for keeping the body healthy. The lymph fluid is rich in protein and this system circulates the fluid throughout the body, collecting viruses, bacteria and waste products. The lymphatic system is carrying this fluid and harmful substances through the lymph vessels and this leads to lymph nodes. Then, wastes are filtered out by the lymphocytes and they are ultimately flushed out of the body.

The lymphedema is happening when the lymph vessels are not able to adequately drain the lymph fluid and this is usually happening from leg or arm. The lymphedema can be caused by primary or secondary causes. The primary lymphedema is caused on its own while the secondary lymphedema is caused by another disease or condition. The secondary lymphedema is more common than the primary lymphedema.

  1. Causes of primary lymphedema: This is rare and inherited condition which is caused by problems with the development of lymph vessels in the body. Here are some causes of primary lymphedema:
  • Late – onset lymphedema (lymphedema tarda): This condition is happening rarely and usually it begins after the age 35.
  • Meige’s disease (lymphedema praecox): This disorder is causing lymphedema around puberty or during pregnancy but also it can happen later, until age 35.
  • Milroy’s disease (congenital lymphedema): This condition is happening in the infancy and it causes lymph nodes to form abnormally.
  1. Causes of secondary lymphedema: Any procedure or condition which can damage your lymph nodes or lymph vessels can lead to lymphedema. Here are some causes:
  • Infection: Parasites or the infection of the lymph nodes can restrict the flow of lymph fluid. Those people who live in tropical and subtropical regions are having more chances to get infection – related lymphedema and also this type of lymphedema is often happening in the developing countries.
  • Cancer: It is known that if the cancer cells block the lymphatic vessels, then the lymphedema can result. If you have a tumor which is growing near a lymph node or lymph vessel, then it can enlarge enough which can block the flow of the lymph fluid.
  • Radiation treatment for cancer: The radiation can lead to inflammation and scarring of the lymph vessels or lymph nodes.

Risk factors

Here are some factors which can increase your risk of developing lymphedema after cancer, from cancer treatment or from other secondary causes are including:

  • Rheumatoid or psoriatic arthritis
  • Excess weight or obesity
  • Older age


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