What is lymphedema?

November 12, 2012

What is lymphedema?

Lymphedema is a painful condition often resulting from damage to or the removal of lymph nodes – it is often a side effect of breast cancer. Lack of education means that many patients do not realise they are suffering from lymphedema until they are already suffering from the pain and discomfort associated with the condition.

Lymphedema is not only associated with breast cancer – or women.

  • Lymphedema praecox may appear at birth or develop during or post puberty
  • Lymphedema – is a rare form of the condition and generally develops after the age of 35

As this condition affects the lymphatic system, it has a detrimental effect on the flow of lymph fluid throughout the body, allowing a build up of harmful substances and toxins to develop. The resulting accumulation of lymph fluid may cause unsightly swelling in the affected areas; this abnormal swelling may not disappear without treatment and may have a negative impact on the patient involved, their mobility, and their quality of life.

Secondary lymphedema

Surgeries involving the removal of lymph nodes carry a risk of the patient developing this painful condition as a secondary problem. In individuals where a great number of lymph nodes are removed, the risk of developing secondary lymphedema is far greater – undergoing radiation therapy also increases this risk. Lymphedema is not always the result of surgery – it may develop due to damage to lymph nodes during any kind of trauma.

Epidemic proportions

Experts believe that cases of lymphedema are reaching epidemic proportions worldwide. The condition may be dormant until something such as an injury, a bite or even an airplane trip triggers it – many affected individuals remain unaware of the problem until their lymphatic system becomes so overwhelmed by the build up of lymph fluid it is unable to maintain efficient drainage.

Signs and symptoms

Many women first realise they have a problem when their bra becomes uncomfortably tight, they experience a feeling of heaviness and notice swelling around the shoulder and in the armpit – they may not realise that there is any connection with a previous injury or surgery. The swelling may well be accompanied by severe pain and an extreme feeling of heat.


Initial treatment is usually with a course of antibiotics, this may then be followed by a course of manual lymphatic drainage therapy intended to remove the blockages responsible for the painful build up of fluid. The aim of lymphatic drainage fluid is to encourage the free flow of lymphatic fluid throughout the whole body; the amount of treatment required will depend very much on the severity of the condition. Some patients are also advised to wear compression bandages in order to reduce swelling. Efficient lymphatic drainage therapy is known to promote an overall feeling of health and well-being in patients – this in itself is an important part of treatments for serious conditions such as cancer.

Preventative measures

There are a number of steps that may be taken in order to reduce the risk of this condition developing, these include –

  • Exercise – any kind of exercise encourages the healthy flow of lymph fluid
  • Where compression sleeves when flying
  • Avoid being exposed to heat such as that experienced in a sauna or Jacuzzi for a prolonged period of time
  • Use a moisture barrier when swimming and moisturising when finished
  • Avoid wearing tight clothing – particular underwear
  • Use insect repellent and, if bitten, keep an eye on the bite
  • Avoid injections in the affected area
  • Do not have blood pressure readings taken on the affected arm
  • Wear protective gloves when gardening or working outside
  • Seek medical advice should you notice any redness, swelling, heat, heaviness or tenderness in the at risk area

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