About Lymphedema


Lymphedema refers to swelling that generally occurs in one of your arms or legs. Sometimes both arms and/or both legs swell. Lymphedema is most commonly caused by the removal of or damage to your lymph nodes as part of cancer treatment. It results from a blockage in your lymphatic system, which is part of your immune system. The blockage prevents lymph fluid from draining well, and the fluid buildup leads to swelling.




Lymphatic System

The lymphatic system is responsible for the production, transport, and filtration of lymph fluid throughout the body. In addition to its important circulatory functions, the lymphatic system also has important immunological functions.

Under normal conditions, the human body pumps about two liters of lymph fluid every day. Disruption to the lymphatic system impairs its ability to drain fluid properly, resulting in excess fluid accumulation.

Lymphedema occurs when the lymph fluid cannot flow towards the heart properly and accumulates in the tissues – it can be compared with a sort of traffic jam. The arms and legs swell up and edema forms, i.e. chronic swelling.



Lymphedema signs and symptoms, which occur in your affected arm or leg, include:

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


The swelling caused by lymphedema ranges from mild, hardly noticeable changes in the size of your arm or leg to extreme changes that make the limb hard to use. Lymphedema caused by cancer treatment may not occur until months or years after treatment.

Causes of Lymphedema

Primary Lymphedema


Primary lymphedema is due to a developmental defect (malformation, dysplasia) of the lymph vessels and/or lymph nodes. Primary lymphedema can be either congenital or hereditary.

Primary lymphedema can present as a variety of abnormalities:

  • Aplasia: Lymph collectors, capillaries or lymph nodes are inherently missing.
  • Hypoplasia: The diameter of the lymph collectors is reduced and/or the number of collectors is below the normal level.
  • Hyperplasia: The diameter of the initial lymphatics and/or lymph collectors is larger than normal.


Primary lymphedema is also classified according to the age of onset:

  • Congenital: Present at birth
  • Praecox: Presents before the age of 35
  • Tardum: Presents after the age of 35

Secondary Lymphedema


Caused by an insult to the lymphatic system and can appear at any age. Causes may include:

  • Surgery/radiation for cancer: Lymph node dissection that is often associated with cancer therapy can disrupt lymph flow.  Radiation can cause tissue fibrosis which can also impair lymph flow.
  • Malignant Tumors: These tumors can compress lymph vessels and decrease flow. Also, cancer cells can penetrate lymph vessels and proliferate and block flow.
  • Trauma: Crushing injuries, burns, and other traumas to the body can affect the lymphatic vessels inhibiting flow.
  • Infection: Chronic or recurrent bouts of acute lymphangitis can cause the failure of the lymphatic vessels.
  • Chronic Venous insufficiency: The constant increased strain placed on the lymphatic system from increased filtration from CVI can cause lymphatic insufficiencies.
  • Obesity: The increased lymphatic load associated with obesity, often in conjunction with increased pressure on lymph nodes, can impair lymphatic flow.
  • Self-Induced: A tourniquet is used on the limb to cause lymphatic and venous obstruction.
  • Filariasis: A parasitic disease caused by microscopic worms that are transmitted when an infected mosquito bites a person.  The adult worms live in the lymphatic system and lead to impairment.
Disclaimer: For educational purposes only. This not a substitute for professional care. Do not use this information for diagnosing or treating a health problem or a disease. If you have or suspect you may have a health problem, you should consult your physician. All medical products require a physician’s prescription.