What is Lymphedema?
Lymphedema is a chronic condition that causes excess fluid to build up in tissues and causes edema, or swelling. The lymphatic system is part of the immune system and it helps protect the body from disease. Lymphatic fluid moves through the system and when the fluid gets blocked, it causes swelling and inflammation.
The condition usually affects one arm or leg but in some cases, it may affect both arms or legs. Some individuals may also have swelling in the neck and head. Lymphedema may occur after cancer surgery. It may also result from abnormal lymphatic system development (primary lymphedema) or another underlying medical factor (secondary lymphedema). There is no cure for lymphedema, but proper treatment can help patients manage it.
Types of Lymphedema
There are two major forms of lymphedema: primary and secondary. Primary lymphedema is rare; it only affects about one in every 6,000 people. It is also called congenital lymphedema because the patient is born with it. Symptoms may appear at birth or shortly after puberty (x).
Secondary lymphedema, on the other hand, develops from another condition, like an infection, trauma, injury or cancer. Lymphedema may occur days after lymphatic injury, or it may develop years later. It may also be a side effect of cancer treatment (x, x).
Symptoms of Lymphedema
Symptoms may develop slowly and they are not always immediately noticeable. Sometimes the patient may only feel aching or heaviness in the arm or leg. Other times, the symptoms may appear much faster.
Patients with lymphedema in the arm or the leg may experience pain, swelling and aching in the limbs. The limbs feel very heavy and they are soft to the touch, maybe even denting if the patient touches it. It can also affect the head or neck, making it difficult to move the shoulders, neck or jaw. The patient often experiences tightness and swelling in these areas, including the neck, face, eyes, lips or under the chin (x).
Patients who notice any signs of lymphedema should speak to a doctor as soon as possible. Controlling the symptoms may stop them from progressing. Without management, the swelling may get worse. The skin thickens and hardens and it becomes difficult to move the limbs. The patient experiences itching, redness and sometimes a rash on the skin. The condition can interfere with wound healing, increasing the risk for infections (x).
Causes of Lymphedema
Primary lymphedema can develop from mutations in certain genes in the lymphatic system (x). These defective genes impair the how the lymphatic system develops, weakening its ability to drain fluid properly. Doctors diagnose three forms of primary lymphedema based on when the symptoms start to develop.
If it is present at birth, the condition is called congenital lymphedema. Interestingly, female newborns have a higher risk. It affects the legs more frequently than the arms and both legs tend to swell. If the condition develops after birth but before age 36, usually patients start to notice symptoms during early adolescence. This is the most prevalent form of primary lymphedema and the rarest form is when the symptoms appear after age 36. However, all forms may be related to uncharacteristic lymph vessel development before birth. The only difference between them is the patient’s age when they begin to experience the swelling (x).
Unlike primary cases, secondary lymphedema is not a result of congenital development. Instead, it is a secondary symptom of another factor or medical condition.
Cancer & Radiation Therapy
Cancer can cause lymphedema because malignant tumors can block the lymph vessels and interfere with fluid flowing through. In addition, cancer cells can also cause the same interference as they grow (x). Similarly, radiation therapy for cancer can also cause scar tissue to develop, which can block the lymph vessels (x).
In some cases, surgery for cancer therapy can negatively interfere with the lymphatic system. In an effort to operate on them, the procedure can cause damage and trigger lymphedema (x).
Disorders that cause inflammation may cause irreversible damage to the lymphatic system. For example, patients with eczema, psoriatic arthritis and rheumatoid arthritis may suffer from lymphedema (x).
Lymphedema may also develop from an infection in the body. For example, cellulitis is a severe bacterial infection and it may damage the tissue around the lymphatic vessels. The tissue may scar and increase the risk for lymphedema. In addition, it may also develop from a parasitic infection (x).
Varicose veins, venous leg ulcers and deep vein thrombosis are all cardiovascular conditions that disrupt blood flow through the body. When blood flow is disrupted, it increases pressure and causes swelling.
In more rare cases, if a patient suffers from a very serious injury that causes severe scarring, it may increase the risk of lymphedema. For example, burns can cause very deep scarring (x).
Lymphedema is not a curable condition. However, treatment aims to help patients manage the swelling and pain. There are different treatment options, depending on the cause and severity. If it develops from an infection, the patient can use antibiotics to control swelling. In addition, the patient may also benefit from physical or occupational therapy. Based on their specific condition, the therapist creates an individual plan for the patient. The patient may need to complete an exercise program or wear compression garments. The therapist may also recommend manual lymphatic drainage therapy to stretch and massage the skin or wrapping techniques with complex decongestive therapy (x).
Living with Lymphedema
In addition to other treatment methods, patients should also follow certain lifestyle practices to keep the body healthy.
Making healthy food choices is an essential part of health care. Some general guidelines for maintaining good nutrition include reducing fat and salt intake and eating a wide range of foods with various nutrients. A daily diet should include two to four servings of fruit and three to five servings of vegetables. Eat foods loaded with fiber, drink lots of water and avoid alcohol (x).
Patients with lymphedema should maintain a healthy lifestyle, which includes regular physical activity. But in some cases, patients may need an expert’s help to exercise safely and effectively. Patients should also take care not to strain the body. Changes in texture, shape or weight in the lymphedema may indicate that the patient’s current exercise routine may be too strenuous (x).
Studies reveal that gentle lifting exercises may help women who are likely to develop lymphedema after breast cancer surgery (x). According to the study, regular exercise may lower the risk. Patients may benefit from choosing workouts that build strength and increase flexibility (x).
Physicians also recommend aerobic exercises that target the upper body. It encourages deep breathing and helps with weight loss, if necessary. Deep breathing helps lymphatic fluid flow through the body (x). Medical researchers believe that the muscles behave like a pump during exercise. Physical activity pumps lymphatic fluid to different parts of the body that need it (x). However, research has not provided enough evidence to show any specific exercise that completely reduces lymphedema.
Protect the skin from burns, sores and other types of damage that might get infected. Also, be careful doing manicures, especially cutting the nails and cuticles. If a patient develops athlete’s foot, they should use antifungal treatment as soon as possible to fight the infection. Treat minor injuries as soon as possible. Clean the area with soap and water, apply an antibiotic ointment and cover the wound with a bandage (x).
Other Lifestyle Practices
Patients with lymphedema should also avoid straining the affected limbs. Avoid repetitive motions — such as pulling, pushing, scrubbing or carrying purses and backpacks. Keep the skin as clean as possible and dry it thoroughly, but gently. Don’t neglect creases and the spaces between the fingers and toes. Ditch tight clothes and jewelry to avoid putting more pressure on the limbs. Instead, wear comfortable, well-fitting clothes and keep jewelry loose. Women should also make sure that bras fit comfortably, not too tight, and avoid underwire (x).
Supplements for Lymphedema
Natural supplements may help improve circulation and lymphatic drainage. But before taking them, talk to a doctor about proper dosage and possible side effects. Supplements are also not a medical cure for any illness. Instead, they may help benefit overall health.
Butcher’s Broom Extract
Butcher’s broom is a plant related to holly. They have antibacterial properties and may also support circulation in the body. Research claims that it helps fight inflammatory and circulatory conditions. Butcher’s broom may also be effective against chronic venous insufficiency and other conditions related to blood clots. The recommended dosage for butcher’s broom extract powder is 500 mg up to three times a day.
Also called yellow or orange root, goldenseal belongs to the buttercup family. It can help the body fight infections — such as urinary tract infections — and also works as an antibiotic. Goldenseal may also benefit heart health and reduce the risk of cancer. As a dietary supplement, take 500 mg of goldenseal powder, once or twice a day, or following a doctor’s instructions.
Corn Silk Extract
People usually throw away the silky threads at the top and sides of a corn stalk. However, corn silk may actually provide a variety of health benefits. These include treating obesity, prostate disorders, PMS and carpal tunnel syndrome. It can also help rid boils from the skin. It also has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that may help patients with lymphedema. The recommended dosage for corn silk extract powder is 1,200 mg daily with food or water, after consulting a physician.
Packed with several vitamins and beneficial alkaloids, people use fenugreek for its numerous potential health benefits. Its role as a medicinal agent dates back to ancient times, addressing digestive problems, inducing labor and healing wounds. It has antioxidant properties that help the body fight disease. It contains various vitamins and minerals, like vitamin C and potassium. Research states that it may also help fight cancer cell growth. As a dietary supplement, take 1,000 mg of fenugreek powder up to three times a day, unless a doctor advises against it. Patients can also add it to tea or use it as a spice.
Dandelion root is a common ingredient in soups, teas, salads and wine. It has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits and it is packed with beta-carotene. Research claims that it may be an effective tool against inflammatory disorders and it may even help reduce patients’ risks for cancer. However, research has not produced enough results to define its efficacy. The recommended dosage for dandelion root extract powder is 1,000 mg twice a day, or following a physician’s instructions.
For eons, people have used hawthorn berry to promote cardiovascular function. Several studies show that it may improve cholesterol and blood pressure levels (x, x). Its berries contain flavonoids, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant agents that minimize free-radical damage. It may also act as an effective topical treatment for sores, but research is not conclusive on its effectiveness. Take 1,200 mg of hawthorn berry extract powder once or twice daily, after confirming the dosage with a doctor.
The Bottom Line
Lymphedema is a condition that causes unusual fluid buildup in soft tissues as a result of a blockage in the lymphatic system. It carries lymphatic fluid throughout the body, helping to protect against infection. When it gets blocked, it causes swelling in the lymphatic system. Symptoms of lymphedema include swelling in the fingers, hands, arms, shoulders or legs. The swelling can occur after an injury to the skin — such as a severe burn — that causes deep scarring. It may also develop after cancer treatment or after an infection. The condition may also be congenital, meaning the patient has an abnormality in the lymphatic system from birth.
There is no cure for this condition. However, treatments can help manage pain and swelling. Treatment methods vary based on the cause and severity of the disease. If it results from an infection, patients may find relief from antibiotics. Other patients may undergo physical or occupational therapy. There are also lifestyle practices that doctors encourage, including exercising regularly, maintaining good nutrition, practicing effective skin care and avoiding infections. Supplements may also help by promoting healthy circulation and fighting infections. Research shows their effectiveness in enhancing overall health, but they are not a cure for any medical condition.