What Is Lymphedema? - Symptoms, Causes & Treatment

Instructor: Jo Kenney

Jo has experience as an instructional designer and courseware developer and has a doctorate in Education Technology.

This lesson will cover the symptoms, causes, and treatment of lymphedema (lim-fi-dee-ma). We'll explore the signs of lymphedema, how it develops, and ways this condition can be treated.

Lymphe- What?

Have you ever had the bad luck of experiencing a sewer backup? When fluid and other waste cannot get to the desired location, they strain the system, and breaks and backups can occur. Your lymphatic system is similar to your neighborhood's water and sewer system in that it moves fluids to and waste from your body tissues.

The lymphatic system helps your body stay nourished by delivering fluids containing proteins, minerals, and nutrients to tissues. The lymphatic system also collects and transports damaged cells, cancer cells, and even bacteria and viruses that may have invaded tissue fluids.

So what does it mean to have lymphedema? Lymph is the clear fluid drained from around the cells that helps keep your tissues healthy. Lymph nodes filter the lymph and safely remove unwanted substances from your body. An edema is a buildup of excess fluids trapped in your body's tissues. So, putting lymph and edema together, we get the condition referred to as lymphedema: a lymphatic fluid buildup that causes swelling. Like a sewage backup is a sign of a problem with the sewage system, lymphedema is a condition that occurs when there is a problem with the lymphatic system.

The lymphatic system is located throughout the body, with clusters of lymph nodes in the armpits, neck, legs, and groin regions.
lymph system, lymph notes, lymphedema


Lymphedema commonly affects a single arm or leg. In rare cases, it may affect both. Some patients may experience swelling in the head, genitals, or chest area, where there are clusters of lymph nodes.

Signs and symptoms vary and changes can be gradual and easy to overlook. Swelling can occur in just part of the arm or leg or include the fingers or toes. In other cases the swelling is so severe that it is difficult to wear jewelry such as watches or rings, or even shoes. Some patients describe that their arm or leg feels heavy or tight. The affected limb may ache or tingle and the range of motion may be affected due to tightness and discomfort. The limb may also be prone to infections or develop blisters, and the skin may harden and thicken.

Lymphedema is a chronic condition, and therefore it is important to realize that the effects of lymphedema are not just physical. The swelling or redness associated with lymphedema can lead to an individual feeling self-consciousness about their appearance. The good news, yes - there is good news, is that lymphedema is not a life-threatening condition.


Lymphedema is categorized two ways: primary and secondary. People can genetically inherit lymphedema, but this is not common; primary lymphedema can occur due to a gene mutation and comes in three main forms:

  • Congenital lymphedema: Abnormal formation of the lymph nodes which presents as swelling, usually in the legs, at infancy.
  • Lymphedema praecox: Symptoms display typically during puberty or pregnancy, but prior to age 35. This is the most common hereditary form of lymphedema.
  • Lymphedema tarda: A rare form of lymphedema which typically occurs after age 35. The legs are most often affected but it can occur in the arms or other areas.

Secondary lymphedema is acquired and is due to the lymphatic system being damaged by surgery, cancer, radiation treatment, or infection; it can take years to develop. In the US, it most commonly occurs as a result of cancer treatment, when lymph nodes are removed. Not everyone who is treated for cancer develops lymphedema, but the risks increase with age, excess weight, or arthritis.

Worldwide, the most common cause of secondary lymphedema is a parasitic infection; in sub-tropical and tropical areas of the world, mosquito bites can spread thread-like worms that live in the lymphatic system. Secondary lymphedema can take years to develop.


Fortunately, treating lymphedema is not as messy or smelly as fixing a sewer system; unfortunately, it is not curable. There are no medications that can cure or reduce the effects of the condition and treatments can vary depending on how early it was caught and the amount of swelling present.

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