Lymphedema commonly occurs after cancer treatments. But the same type of swelling is also one of the first signs of vascular disease in your legs.
No matter what causes lymphedema, it's important to seek help as soon as possible. Without prompt treatment, the swelling can lead to serious complications, including permanent soft tissue damage and infections.
Kishore K. Arcot, MD, at Memphis Vein Center specializes in determining the cause of the problem. Then he protects your health and prevents ongoing problems with customized treatments that fit your unique health care needs.
Lymphedema occurs when fluids leak out of lymph vessels and accumulate in tissues under your skin. The fluids most often accumulate in the legs and arms, but the condition can also affect your face, neck, abdomen, breasts, and genitals.
Your lymph system consists of a vast network of lymph vessels and nodes. The vessels collect excess fluids from your body and circulate the fluids through lymph nodes. The nodes filter out and destroy harmful substances like bacteria, viruses, and waste.
Normally, the lymph system eliminates the wastes and excess fluids. But when the vessels or nodes are damaged or blocked, the fluids can't drain properly. Then they seep out into the surrounding tissues and cause lymphedema.
Causes of lymphedema
The cause depends on the type of lymphedema, either primary or secondary. Primary lymphedema is a rare condition that’s the result of inherited conditions.
Secondary lymphedema begins when an underlying condition, infection, or traumatic injury damages the lymph vessels or lymph nodes.
This problem often develops as a result of surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation therapy to treat cancer. But a common vascular condition called chronic venous insufficiency is one of the top causes of secondary lymphedema.
Vascular disease and lymphedema
Chronic venous insufficiency begins when valves in your leg veins stop working and let blood flow back down the leg instead of going upward and back to your heart.
The refluxing blood accumulates in the vein. As a result, venous pressure in your lower leg increases. The extra pressure forces fluids out of the tiny capillaries and into the surrounding tissues, a condition called edema.
At first, the lymph system does its job and removes the extra fluids. But without treatment, chronic venous insufficiency forces more fluids out of the veins. This places extra stress and pressure on the lymph system and can damage the lymph vessels. Then you could end up with edema and lymphedema.
The hallmark symptom of lymphedema is swelling, but you can have other symptoms. Here’s the rundown:
Swelling occurs as the fluids spread through the soft tissues near the damaged lymph vessel. At first, the swelling may seem soft. If you press on it with a finger, the indentation remains after you lift your finger.
Over time, the area becomes firm, and the swelling may not go down even when you elevate the limb.
The skin over the swollen area feels tight and may turn red. As the swelling continues, your skin thickens and develops folds.
In the most advanced stage of lymphedema, the skin becomes severely dry and thickened. You may also have recurrent skin infections, wart-like growths, and scarring.
When chronic venous insufficiency is the source of your leg swelling, you may develop the skin changes associated with lymphedema and more.
Untreated venous insufficiency also makes your thickened skin turn a reddish-brown color and may cause an eczema-like rash. In severe cases, the fluids break down your skin and cause a nonhealing ulcer.
Discomfort and unusual sensations
Lymphedema commonly causes tingling (pins and needles), numbness, and aching sensations.
Loss of movement and joint discomfort
The swelling and thickened skin result in painful joints and difficulty moving your leg (or arm).
If you notice leg swelling or any of these symptoms, call us at Memphis Vein Center in Memphis, Tennessee, or request an appointment online today.