Lymphedema is the accumulation of fluid in the soft tissues of the body. It occurs when the lymphatic system is unable to drain lymph – also known as lymphatic fluid. The lymphatic system helps fight infections and other diseases by transporting lymph throughout the body.
We can differentiate two types of lymphedema:
Primary lymphedema: occurs on its own when there is an alteration in the lymphatic system.
Secondary lymphedema: occurs when there has been some alteration due to surgical operations, trauma or infection.
Lymphedema most often affects the arms and legs, but it can also occur on the face, neck, torso, abdomen (belly), and genitalia.
Lymphedema can also be caused by the removal or damage of lymph nodes as part of cancer treatment.
It usually occurs in people who have been treated for breast cancer or cancers that affect the urinary tract, bladder, kidneys, prostate, testicles, or penis. It can develop right after surgery or radiation therapy, or it can occur months or even years after cancer treatment has ended.
What are the causes of lymphedema?
For cancer patients, lymphedema can occur due to many conditioning factors from treatments to combat cancer, and is long-term side effect. Some of the causes could be:
Obstruction of the lymphatic system due to the increase in the size of a tumor.
Tumor involving or blocking lymph nodes or ducts in the neck, chest, armpit, pelvis, or abdomen.
Surgery in which the lymph nodes were removed.
Damage to the lymphatic vessels during radiation therapy, which can cause too much lymphatic fluid to be in the tissues.
Cardiovascular diseases, arthritis, and eczema.
Lymphedema symptoms and detection methods
Signs and symptoms of lymphedema can manifest as follows:
Swelling that begins in the arm or leg, including the fingers and toes.
Feeling of heaviness or stiffness in the arm or leg.
Hardening and thickening of the skin (fibrosis).
Tension, shine, heat or redness in the skin.
When lymphedema occurs in the head and neck area, there may be difficulty moving the neck, jaw, or shoulders.
Decreased vision due to swelling of the eyelids.
Symptoms of lymphedema can start slowly and are not always easy to spot. Often the only symptoms may be heaviness or pain in an arm or leg. Other times, lymphedema can start suddenly. Lymphedema caused by cancer treatment may not appear for months or years after treatment.
If you have any of these symptoms, we recommend that you talk to your doctor as soon as possible, since the swelling could also be translated as a reappearance of the cancer. We must learn to detect these symptoms so that prevention is earlier.
Is there any treatment for lymphedema?
Although treatment can help control lymphedema, there is currently no cure for the disorder. Treatment focuses on reducing swelling and controlling pain.
Manual lymphatic drainage
It can promote the circulation of lymphatic fluid away from the arm or leg. It helps plugged lymphatic fluid drain properly into the bloodstream and can reduce swelling.
Avoid massaging the affected area if you have a skin infection, blood clots, or active disease in the areas where lymphatic drainage will be done. The best-known manual lymphatic drainage therapy is the Godoy Method and it is one of the most recommended techniques after an excision or operation.
Surgery or microsurgery
Some small studies according to BreastCancer, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing information about breast cancer, indicate that there is a possible usefulness of surgery in cases where particularly severe or advanced lymphedema does not respond to other treatments .
Surgical interventions that stand out are lymphatic-venous anastomoses, transplants or lymph node transfer surgery and specific liposuction for lymphedema.
These surgeries are still in the testing stage and are not available everywhere. Also, surgery is considered a last-resort option for severe lymphedema that doesn't respond to treatment. In most cases, surgery would not be considered as a treatment option. Of course, as we always say, it is important to consult with your doctor.
Your doctor may prescribe antibiotics to treat infections or drugs to relieve pain when needed.
How can we prevent lymphedema?
The risk factors that cause it are still being investigated; however there are some ways to prevent it:
Maintain a healthy weight. Follow a diet rich in fruits and vegetables. If you can, exercise every day. Reduce stress and try to get enough sleep.
Take care of the skin. One way to reduce the risk of developing lymphedema is to avoid skin injuries or infections. This is because infection-fighting cells move to the area of injury and cause swelling.
Avoid wearing tight clothing. Don't wear tight clothing that leaves deep marks on your legs, such as socks or sweatpants with elastic cuffs. Wear loose clothing that won't leave marks.
Do not expose yourself to extreme temperatures. Avoid saunas or hot tubs. Limit hot showers to less than 15 minutes. Do not apply heating pads or ice to swollen areas.
Exercise. Mild exercise, such as walking, is a good way to help your body's fluids flow better. If possible, try to walk every day.
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