Lymphedema

Treating Cardiovascular Diseases in Wisconsin and Northern Illinois

Lymphedema is the abnormal buildup of fluid, usually in the arms or legs, which can occur when lymph nodes are removed or lymph vessels are damaged, impaired or missing. When these pathways that return the lymph into the body’s circulation are disrupted, lymph cannot drain properly. This causes it to accumulate, resulting in swelling.

The most common lymphedema symptoms are swelling in the arms, legs, hands, fingers, shoulders or chest. The swelling usually follows a trauma, such as a bruise, cut, sports injury or sunburn. It can also occur after an infection or cancer treatment.

Your lymphatic system helps protect your body against disease and foreign substances. This system includes your lymph vessels, lymph nodes and lymph fluid, as well as lymphoid organs, such as the thymus and spleen, and lymphoid tissue, such as the tonsils and Peyer’s patch, located in the small intestine.

Your lymph vessels extend throughout your body, much like blood vessels do. Fluid collects between your cells and drains into tiny capillaries that branch out from your lymph vessels. Lymph nodes filter and store the lymph fluid.

Lymphedema Symptoms

Symptoms of lymphedemamay include:

  • Swelling in the arms, legs, hands, finger, shoulders or chest
  • A “full” sensation in the arms or legs
  • Lack of flexibility in the hand, wrist or ankle
  • Tightness in clothing, especially in one specific area
  • Tightness when wearing a ring or watch that wasn’t there before

Causes of Lymphedema

Lymphedema causescan be inherited or acquired. Inherited lymphedema, also known as primary lymphedema, occurs when you are born without lymph vessels and nodes.

Acquired lymphedema, or secondary lymphedema, is more common and occurs when there is an injury to your lymphatic system that interrupts or blocks the flow of lymph through the lymphatic system. Examples of these injuries include:

  • Cancer
  • Deep vein thrombosis
  • Infection
  • Radiation to treat cancer
  • Scar tissue
  • Sunburn
  • Surgery
  • Surgery to remove cancer, such as a mastectomy or lumpectomy
  • Trauma (including bruises, cuts and sports injuries)

Diagnosing Lymphedema

Your doctor will diagnose lymphedema based on a physical exam and a careful evaluation of your medical history, which is likely to include questions about recent injuries, infections, cancer treatments and surgeries. In some cases, additional testing may be necessary.

Treating Lymphedema

Treatment for lymphedema is very individualized and depends on the cause and severity of your condition. If your condition is triggered by an infection, your doctor is likely to prescribe antibiotics.

To reduce swelling, your doctor may recommend compression garments or special wrapping techniques over the affected area. Massaging and stretching the skin can also help drain lymph fluid.

In some cases, your doctor may refer you to a physical therapist who can recommend specific exercises for your condition. Other times, your doctor may advise that you avoid certain exercises, especially those that are repetitive or vigorous.

To help prevent lymphedema from recurring, it is important to:

  • Avoid tight-fitting clothes on the affected area
  • Be extra careful with cutting your fingernails or toenails
  • Call your doctor immediately if you notice signs of infection, such as a fever, flu-like symptoms, pain, tenderness, swelling or a wound that won’t heal 
  • Eat a healthy diet, making sure to get adequate protein
  • Get regular low-impact physical activity, such as walking for about 20 minutes most days of the week
  • Keep your skin clean
  • Protect your hands when gardening or doing housework

A Leader in Treating Lymphedema

Aurora offers a multidisciplinary team when treating patients who have lymphedema and related conditions, such as cancer. We regularly collaborate with physical therapists or oncologists when developing treatment plans. 

Find a doctor or heart specialist near you. Aurora doctors are located throughout eastern WI and northeastern IL. To get a second opinion or if you need assistance finding a provider, please call 888-649-6892.