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What is lymphedema and who’s at risk for this condition?

Posted on May 26, 2024

What is lymphedema? It’s a form of chronic swelling. But, unlike other forms of swelling (or edema) lymphedema doesn’t develop when a fluid such as blood or water gets trapped in your soft tissue. Instead, this type of swelling sets in when your body’s lymph fluid gets trapped in the soft tissue of your skin.

Once that occurs, you’ll notice swelling that won’t go away. That is the case for Wendy Williams, who displayed her lymphedema-impacted feet for the world to see on her new Lifetime special, announcing, "This is lymphedema. And I can only feel now 2% (of my feet). Do you see what this looks like?”

Now, Williams' feet did look noticeably swollen. But what you couldn't see on screen was that, when you press down on the swollen areas of skin, the imprint of your finger will stick around. And, eventually, the problem can be painful.

But what is lymph fluid? Why would it get trapped in your skin? And who’s at risk for lymphedema? Keep reading for the answer to these and other important questions!

What is Lymph fluid? What is lymphedema?

Lymph fluid circulates within your body as part of the lymphatic system that travels alongside your veins and arteries. Filled with proteins and fats, this fluid helps get white blood cells to spots in your body where infection-fighting is necessary.

Since lymph fluid is key to helping immunity, anything that blocks it’s movement could leave you vulnerable to infection. Plus, once trapped in your soft tissue, built up lymph can also cause your body to form scar tissue or new fat deposits in the affected areas. Together, this combination can impact your mobility, making it difficult for you to get through your day.

Now you have a better understanding of lymph fluid. But why would it stop circulating? And what causes lymphedema? Unfortunately, there’s no one answer to this question. Because several different triggers or conditions could lead to the buildup of lymphatic fluid in your body.

What is Lymphedema? Underlying Causes of Chronic Swelling

Currently, an estimated 10 million Americans live with this condition. Common causes of lymphedema include:

1.       Your genetics or family history

2.       Gender, as this condition affects women more than men

3.       Advanced vein disease

4.       Illness, including heart disease, heart failure, obesity, high blood pressure, liver disease, or kidney disease

5.       Physical trauma

6.       Cancer treatment, particularly for breast cancer survivors whose lymph nodes were removed. In fact, a new study shows that one third of women who've survived colon, uterine or ovarian cancer go on to develop lymphedema. (Sadly, black women have a higher risk of lymphedema following breast cancer surgery when compared to women of other races.)

Symptoms include swelling in your arm, leg, fingers or toes. (It could affect the entire limb, or only smaller parts.) Your limb may feel tight or heavy, and it could display limits on range of motion. Your affected arm or leg could ache or feeling uncomfortable. You may develop recurring infections, thick or hardened skin and, when lymphedema hits your lower body, leg cramps could also develop.

Regardless of the cause of lymphedema, it’s important to seek medical attention at the first sign of swelling. After all, the condition is progressive. And, if left untreated, your swelling could become both very painful and debilitating.

What is Lymphedema? Swelling that Usually Gets Worse Over Time

This condition develops in four stages. In its earliest stages, your symptoms may be very mild. Your arms or legs could feel heavy or experience a mild tingling sensation. But, as more fluid builds up, swelling will set in.

Once that occurs, things could get serious. In fact, for some people, the swelling of lymphedema makes it difficult to wear regular clothing. Plus, studies reveal that when lymphedema affects your lower extremities, it can increase your risk for skin cancer. And, in some cases, the swelling is so severe that movement is challenging. Luckily, with early intervention, it’s usually possible to prevent this degree of progression.

Lymphedema Risk: Are There Ways to Prevent this Condition?

If you're at higher risk for chronic swelling, steer clear of tight clothing or accessories. It may be wise to avoid tatoos as well, since they increase your risk for infection. Now, if you already have lymphedema, ask healthcare providers not to take your blood pressure in affected areas. Whenever you're outside, carefully apply SPF sunscreen, since your skin is very sensitive and at a higher risk for cancer. Also, regularly moisturize to keep your skin hydrated, since this can reduce irritation. And steer clear of very hot baths or showers, since the warmth can make your symptoms worse.

Finally, according to the American Cancer Society, it's important to reach or maintain a healthy weight if you have lymphedema risk, since obesity adds to that risk. If you need inspiration, check out our Move it Monday series for gentle, effective ways to add more exercise into your routine.

Treatment Options

When caught early, we’ve seen great results using compression therapy for lymphedema. In many cases, you’ll combine compression socks or sleeves with a special form of massage to help get lymph fluid moving. (It’s called manual lymphatic drainage.)

Newer treatment options involve light therapy and surgery. But since there’s no way to predict if surgery will relieve swelling, it’s best to choose an earlier, less invasive intervention. In fact, because lymphatic surgeries offer mixed results, many surgeons instead opt to remove built up fat deposits using liposuction. Because, in this way, you can reduce lymphedema’s physical symptoms and limitations. But you won’t have to worry about patients not responding to treatment.

Supportive Products

Like we said, compression socks can really help with the fluid build-up. But did you know there are also special compression pumps you can use to get built-up fluid circulating? If you need a more dramatic intervention, this in-home medical device could help you manage your condition.

In less severe cases, grabbing a new bike can help you improve lymphedema through gentle exercise. Additionally, certain dietary changes can help improve circulation and reduce swelling. So stocking up on circulation boosting grocery items such as green tea could also help manage lymphedema at home.

Houston and Dallas Lymphedema Help

Treating vein disease may help prevent lymphedema from developing or progressing. Plus, when you see your Houston and Dallas area vein specialists, we can also prescribe compression therapy to help manage your chronic swelling.

Ready to manage swelling and regain mobility? We’re here to help. So reach out today and schedule your consultationschedule your consultationschedule your consultation at one of our five Houston-area locations or our new Dallas office!

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