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Leg Swelling: Types of Lymphedema

You might have heard the unfortunate term "cankles" used to describe legs whose calf and ankle width are similar. This frequently ridiculed condition could be a symptom of a serious disorder.

Numerous issues could contribute to swelling of the ankles, including obesity, hereditary issues, and disorders like edema or lymphedema.

Edema is fluid buildup in the tissues, causing swelling. Lymphedema is the chronic buildup of lymphatic fluid, generally in the arms or legs.

Difference between edema and lymphedema

Edema and lymphedema are conditions involving the swelling of various body parts. The symptoms of both conditions typically include the following:

While edema and lymphedema may seem similar, there are key differences between the two. Edema is a condition related to venous insufficiency, characterized by fluid accumulation in the tissues, while lymphedema is specifically related to the lymphatic system.


Edema is a condition that occurs when the body tissues retain excess fluid, leading to swelling. It can appear in any part of the body, but most commonly occurs in the feet, ankles, and legs. Edema can occur due to several factors, including underlying medical conditions, medications, or lifestyle choices.


Lymphedema is a sometimes aggressive buildup of lymph fluid in the tissues. It most commonly affects the arms and legs but can also occur in other areas of the body. Lymphedema occurs when the lymphatic system, which carries lymph fluid throughout the body, becomes damaged or blocked. This disorder can occur due to cancer treatments, infections, or genetic factors.

Treatment options for lymphedema include physical therapy, compression garments, and lymphatic drainage massage. In some cases, surgery may be necessary.

Edema can usually be treated with medications, compression stockings, and lifestyle changes, while lymphedema may require specialized treatment to address the lymphatic system.

What are the categories of lymphedema?

The two categories of lymphedema are primary lymphedema and secondary lymphedema.


Primary lymphedema is a condition that is characterized by the accumulation of lymphatic fluid in the body, leading to swelling. It is considered a rare disorder typically caused by abnormalities in the development of the lymphatic system. These abnormalities can occur due to genetic mutations or inherited factors.


Secondary lymphedema is a chronic condition that occurs as a result of damage to the lymphatic system. Unlike primary lymphedema, which is typically present at birth or develops later in life without an apparent cause, secondary lymphedema is caused by a specific event or condition.

There are various causes of secondary lymphedema, including surgical procedures that involve the removal or damage to lymph nodes, such as those performed for cancer treatment. Other factors that can contribute to secondary lymphedema include trauma, infection, obesity, and chronic venous insufficiency.

How Edema and Lymphedema are Diagnosed

To accurately diagnose and treat edema or lymphedema, physicians rely on a variety of tests and procedures.

Physical Examination

During the physical examination, the physician will take a detailed history and perform a thorough assessment. The physician will pay special attention to any areas of swelling, including the skin, limbs, and abdomen. The physician will also assess the patient's general well-being, including their overall health, symptoms, and any underlying medical conditions.

One of the key aspects of the physical examination is measuring the level of swelling. This can be done using various techniques, such as calipers or girth measurements. The physician will compare these measurements with previous records or normal values to assess the severity and extent of the edema.

Imaging Tests

Imaging tests are often utilized to help physicians visualize the body's structure and assess the extent of swelling. Two common imaging tests used to diagnose edema or lymphedema include ultrasound and computed tomography (CT) scan.

Lab Tests 

In addition to imaging tests, laboratory tests may also be performed to help diagnose edema or lymphedema. These tests include blood tests and analysis of the lymph fluid.

Blood tests can help the physician evaluate the patient's overall health, including kidney and liver function. They can also help identify any abnormalities or infections that may be contributing to the edema.

Lymph fluid analysis involves removing a sample of lymph fluid from the body and analyzing it in the laboratory. This test can help the physician determine the composition and presence of any infections or abnormalities in the lymph fluid.

The diagnostic process may vary depending on the patient's symptoms, medical history, and physical exam findings.

Is Lymphedema Dangerous?

While lymphedema itself is not considered life-threatening, it can have significant impacts on a person's quality of life and overall health.

If left untreated, lymphedema can lead to complications such as skin changes, impaired wound healing, and lymphostatic fibrosis, where the tissue begins to solidify.

If you are experiencing swelling in your legs and ankles, early diagnosis and treatment are vital. Please contact our compassionate team of specialists to schedule a thorough evaluation today.schedule a thorough evaluation today.schedule a thorough evaluation today.

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