What is Lymphedema?

Lymphedema is swelling that’s caused by a collection of too much lymph fluid. It usually happens in your arms and legs, but it can happen in other parts of your body, as well. This swelling may cause pain and limit how well the affected area moves.

Lymph is a protein-rich fluid that moves throughout your body in lymph vessels. It scoops up things like bacteria, viruses, and waste, and carries them to your lymph nodes. Your lymph nodes then filter the fluid to get the impurities out of your body.

You could get lymphedema for any number of reasons. There are treatments to help bring down the swelling so you feel and move better.

Causes and Types

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If your lymphatic system is damaged or a blockage exists, the fluid can build up in the soft tissue beneath your skin.

There are two types of lymphedema:

Secondary lymphedema is caused by another condition or disease that damages your lymph vessels or nodes. Secondary lymphedema may be caused by:

  • An infection in your lymph nodes
  • Parasites
  • Cancer or radiation treatment for cancer
  • Surgery
  • Lymph node removal
  • Injury

Primary lymphedema is much less common. It’s a genetic problem that happens because your lymph nodes or vessels either aren't adequately developed or are missing altogether.


The most common symptom of lymphedema is swelling in one or both arms or legs. This swelling, which can extend into the fingers or toes, usually develops gradually over time.

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At first, the swelling is soft and fluid. In time, it can become more dense and fibrous, and it may make your skin look grainy. You could also have pain, heaviness, or limited range of motion in the affected limb, which may make it hard to exercise or do other activities.

Over time, these symptoms may lead to other problems including infection, and in rare cases, cancer. If swelling in your arm or leg doesn’t go away, you should see your doctor.


Your doctor will want to know about your medical history. You may also get imaging tests to help diagnose the problem.

A lymphoscintigraphy is a scan that can detect blockages or missing lymph vessels. It is done by injecting radioactive material. Other tests to investigate the cause of your swelling include MRI, CT scan, and ultrasound.


Your doctor may recommend:

  • Compression garments: These fabric sleeves apply pressure to the affected limb to help lymph fluid circulate.
  • Compression devices: These compression sleeves are attached to a pump that automatically applies and removes pressure on your limb on a timed schedule to prevent lymph buildup.
  • Exercise: Gentle exercises may promote lymph drainage and strengthen your affected limb.
  • Bandages: Wrapped in just the right way, these may help push lymph fluid toward the trunk of your body. You may also wear them to help prevent lymph fluid from going back into your affected limb.
  • Massage: A specially trained professional can do light massage to help move fluid from areas of swelling to other areas where working lymph vessels may carry it away. You can even learn how to use these massage techniques on yourself.

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