Lymphedema is a condition that occurs when the lymphatic system becomes obstructed. The lymphatic system is a network of lymph vessels that carry lymph fluid throughout your body. When a blockage occurs in the lymph vessels, the fluid cannot drain properly and builds up in the soft tissues of your body resulting in swelling. Swelling occurs in the arms and legs, but can affect other parts of the body. There is no cure for lymphedema, but the condition can be controlled.
Lymphedema can be caused by surgery, infection, cancer and injury. Surgical removal of lymph nodes to detect cancer can overload remaining lymph nodes and cause a buildup of lymph fluid. Cancer cells can block lymphatic vessels if a tumor grows enough to obstruct fluid flow. Infection can attack your lymph nodes and vessels obstructing fluid flow and causing lymphedema.
Arm and Leg Symptoms
Lymphedema symptoms in your arms and legs include a tightness or heaviness in your limbs, restricted range of motion, swelling in your limbs that may extend to your hands and feet and an aching in the limbs. You may feel burning or itching in the legs or toes and have difficulty moving a joint in the arm or leg. Other symptoms may include a hardening or thickening of the skin and recurrent infection of the affected limbs.
Other Lymphedema Symptoms
Other symptoms which may accompany lymphedema include trouble sleeping and hair loss. Clothing, shoes, watches and jewelry may feel tight and not fit properly.
When your doctor suspects lymphedema, he will order imaging tests to examine the lymphatic system. In a radionuclide imaging, you are injected with mildly radioactive dye and then scanned. The images will show how the dye is moving through the lymph vessels and if they are blocked or not. An MRI and CT scan will show tissue in your arms and legs and if lymphedema is present.
Treatment will control and relieve symptoms. A physical therapist can provide you with gentle exercises that encourage lymph fluid to move out of your limbs. Bandaging the affected arm or leg allows fluid to pump out of the limb back into the trunk of your body. Bandages should be tightest at the fingers or toes and looser as they go up the limb. Massage therapy moves fluid to the lymph nodes where it can drain. Do not use massage if you have infection, blood clots or congestive heart failure, or have received radiation treatment. Compression garments are sleeves or stockings that compress the limb to encourage the flow of lymph fluid. Always consult your doctor on what treatment will be best for you.