Lymphedema is swelling of a body part due to a buildup of protein-rich fluid in your tissues. It occurs most commonly in the arms or legs, but can also occur in the face, trunk, abdomen, or genital area.
The severity of symptoms depends on the stage of lymphedema. During early stages, the main symptom is swelling. As the lymphedema progresses, the protein-rich swelling causes a hardening of the affected tissues. Other complications that are seen in the later stages of lymphedema may include:
- Increased hardening
- Extreme increase in volume of the swollen extremity
- Fungal infections
Lymphedema can be primary or secondary. Primary lymphedema is caused by congenital (present from birth) malformations of the lymphatic system. This form of lymphedema:
- Can appear around puberty or pregnancy
- Can be present at birth or develop later in life
- Usually affects the lower extremities, but can be seen in the upper extremities
Secondary lymphedema can affect either the arms or legs. This form of lymphedema is caused by trauma to the lymphatic system, such as:
- Removal of lymph nodes
- Severe venous insufficiencies (when the veins have trouble sending blood from your limbs back to your heart)
- Surgery or radiation therapy for cancer
- Trauma or infection of lymphatic system
It’s important that you seek treatment immediately if you think you are experiencing this condition, as it will not go away on its own. If left untreated, lymphedema can cause serious long-term consequences.
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