If you know someone who suffers from lymphedema, you’ve seen how it can be a worrisome and uncomfortable experience – especially if the symptoms are severe. If you’re not familiar with lymphedema, it’s a condition that causes swelling in your arms, fingers, legs, and/or toes. The swelling is generally limited to one arm or leg, but can be present in both sides as well.
You may be wondering what causes lymphedema and whether you’re at risk for developing the condition. One of the keys to a good prognosis is an early diagnosis, so Dr. Kishore Arcot and the rest of our team here at Memphis Vein Center want you to be informed and ready to seek treatment if symptoms arise.
What causes lymphedema?
Your lymphatic system is responsible for circulating lymph fluid throughout your body, as well as filtering out viruses, bacteria, and waste products. When lymph nodes are damaged or surgically removed, blockages occur and the fluid is unable to drain, leading to lymphedema
There are two types of lymphedema, primary and secondary, each with its own set of causes.
A rare, inherited condition, primary lymphedema is caused by improper development of lymph vessels. It can occur without any warning at any age.
There are three conditions that fall under this category:
- Meige disease, which typically occurs during puberty or pregnancy, is when lymphatic fluid is transported abnormally, causing a buildup of lymphatic fluid and subsequent swelling of the lower limbs
- Milroy’s disease is present at birth or develops during infancy, and causes abnormal formation of lymph nodes
- Late-onset lymphedema, which starts after age 35
This type of lymphedema is caused by an underlying health condition, and sometimes as a side effect of certain surgeries.
People with cancer may unfortunately develop lymphedema due to cancer in the lymph nodes or tumors growing close to lymph nodes or vessels, blocking the transportation of lymphatic fluid. Those who are undergoing radiation as a cancer treatment are also at risk for lymphedema because the radiation may cause damage to lymph nodes and vessels.
A parasitic infection in your lymph nodes may become severe enough to restrict the flow of lymphatic fluid, resulting in lymphedema. This kind of infection most commonly occurs in tropical or subtropical environments, such as Asia, the South Pacific, Africa, the Caribbean, and South America.
Surgeries that involve the removal of lymph nodes, like breast cancer surgery, may disrupt the normal flow of lymphatic fluid, resulting in lymphedema. Undergoing surgery that involves the blood vessels in your limbs may damage your lymph nodes, also resulting in disrupted flow of lymphatic fluid.
Lymphedema can show up immediately after surgery, or could take months or years to develop.
There are a number of reasons people develop lymphedema. Common causes of lymphedema include:
- Cancer affecting your lymph nodes
- Surgery on or near your lymph nodes
- Radiation treatment
- Congenital conditions
- A family history of chronic swelling
- A history of skin infections
- Chronic venous disease
It’s good to remember that just because you have one or more of these risk factors doesn’t mean you’ll definitely develop lymphedema. It’s even better to know what to look out for and learn how to reduce your risk.
Exercising regularly at a pace that works for you, practicing good skin care in order to avoid skin infections, treating injuries promptly to avoid or reduce swelling, and maintaining a healthy weight are all great ways to reduce your risk for lymphedema.
If you do notice any symptoms, contact Memphis Vein Center right away to schedule an appointment with Dr. Arcot. You can call our office in Memphis, Tennessee, or request an appointment online. Don’t wait until your symptoms are severe because an early diagnosis makes for a better prognosis.