What is the Lymphatic System?

Your lymphatic system is an important part of your body’s illness-fighting (immune) system. When your lymph system is working properly, lymph fluid travels through lymph vessels in your body to filters called lymph nodes. These nodes trap bacteria and other foreign substances that could otherwise enter your bloodstream.

When your lymph vessels or nodes are missing or damaged, extra fluid can build up in parts of your body – often in your arms and legs.

What Is Lymphedema?

When fluid from your lymphatic system builds up in your body and causes swelling, you have a condition called lymphedema. “Edema” refers to swelling, so lymph-related swelling is lymphedema.

Lymphedema isn’t curable. However, you can successfully manage symptoms by following your doctor’s treatment guidelines and working to prevent future lymphedema episodes. Learn more about preventing lymphedema from returning.

Types of Lymphedema

There are two forms of lymphedema:

  • Inherited lymphedema, also called primary lymphedema: You develop this condition when you’re born without certain lymph vessels and nodes.
  • Acquired lymphedema, also known as secondary lymphedema: You can develop this condition when your lymph nodes in a specific area are damaged or removed, so lymph can’t drain. Conditions that can cause you to develop acquired lymphedema include:
    • Cancer
    • Radiation treatment for cancer
    • Deep vein thrombosis
    • Infection
    • Scar tissue
    • Severe sunburn
    • Surgery (such as mastectomies and lumpectomies used to treat breast cancer)
    • Trauma, such as a bruise, cut or sports injury

World-Class Care

Aurora’s Specialized Lymphedema Care

We know it can feel frustrating to live with lymphedema, particularly when you’re worried that it may return. Our specialists can help make lymphedema management a lot easier. We offer:

  • Specialized lymphedema therapy: Experts at more than a dozen Aurora locations work specifically with people who have lymphedema. Our physical therapists teach you compression-wrapping techniques and exercises and do special lymph massage.
  • Vascular experts: Lymphedema is one of the many conditions that make up vascular disease. If you have complex symptoms or develop other, related health conditions, you’re already in the right place. We treat more patients with vascular conditions than any other health system in Wisconsin.
  • Personalized care: Your health comes first at Aurora. The people who count on us for care benefit from all of our work, including our groundbreaking research and publication in clinical journals.


Lymphedema Symptoms

The most common lymphedema symptom is swelling in your arms, legs, hands, fingers, shoulders or chest. Other symptoms can include:

  • A “full” sensation in various parts of your body
  • Lack of flexibility in a hand, wrist or ankle
  • Unusually tight feeling while wearing your clothing, which seems to have developed more quickly than possible weight gain
  • Newly developed feeling of tightness when wearing your rings or watch

Diagnosis & Treatment

Thorough Evaluation & Treatment for Lymphedema

To check for lymphedema, your doctor will review your medical history, discuss any medications you’re taking and perform a full physical exam.

Diagnostic Tests

If you need additional tests, they might include:

  • Ultrasound: An imaging method that uses sound waves to create pictures of your body’s organs
  • Radiographic testing:
    • Computerized tomography (CT) scan
    • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
  • Radionuclide imaging of your lymphatic system, or lymphoscintigraphy (tracks radioactive dye moving through your lymph system

Learn more about heart and vascular testing and diagnosis at Aurora.

Treatment Options

Your doctor’s treatment recommendations will depend on what’s causing your lymphedema symptoms and how severe they are. Treatment options could include:

  • Medication: If an infection is causing your symptoms, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics.
  • Home care: We may give you special compression garments and show you wrapping techniques to help reduce swelling. We may also show you how to massage and stretch your skin to help drain fluid.
  • Lymphedema therapy: We offer specialized lymphedema therapy at more than a dozen Wisconsin locations. Our physical therapists can recommend specific exercises to help relieve your symptoms. Therapists can also do special lymph massage to help drain fluid out of affected areas. When you need it, they can use pneumatic (air-pump) compression sleeves to help push lymph away from your fingers and toes.


Aurora’s Lymphedema Clinics

We provide specialized lymphedema therapy at the following locations:


Preventing Lymphedema From Returning

Lymphedema isn’t something we can cure. However, you can do many things to help prevent the condition from occurring again.

Your doctor will give you specific instructions. General prevention tips include:

  • Call your doctor immediately if you notice signs of infection (fever, flu-like symptoms, pain, tenderness, swelling or a wound that won’t heal).
  • Avoid wearing tight-fitting clothes on the part of your body that’s affected by lymphedema.
  • Try to avoid cutting yourself when trimming your fingernails or toenails.
  • Eat a healthy diet that includes plenty of protein.
  • Do regular low-impact exercise, such as walking.
  • Keep your skin clean.
  • Protect your hands from injury (with gloves or careful movement) when you do gardening or housework.

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