Posted by Susan Callison


 What is Lymphedema?

Lymphedema is a medical condition that occurs when part of the lymphatic system* is damaged, blocked and/or missing. As a result, the body loses its ability to drain waste-filled fluid from the affected area causing chronic, progressive swelling, pain and can lead to other dangerous health complications.


Lymphedema affects each person differently. The onset may be acute or gradual and can be temporary or chronic. It can be very localized, meaning one specific part of the body (hand, arm, foot, leg, armpit, abdomen, buttocks, face...) or more body wide (both legs, both arms, entire trunk, right side of the body, left side of the body and even all over). The psychological impact of lymphedema is often not mentioned and underestimated.


Lymphedema currently has no cure and once at risk for it, the risk never goes away. It can show up 10, even 15 years after the initial damage. If left undiagnosed, untreated and unmanaged, lymphedema can become disfiguring, disabling and will destroy lives. This is why early intervention, management and community are so important!


*Learn about the lymphatic system: Understanding our Lymphatic System & How it Works

Lymphedema is classified into two types: primary lymphedema and secondary lymphedema.

Primary Lymphedema

Primary lymphedema is a genetic (inherited) condition that may show symptoms at birth or later in life. People with primary lymphedema have a deficiency in the development of their lymphatic system. This includes abnormal or missing lymph nodes or lymph vessels that prevent the lymphatic system from properly draining fluid from the tissues.


Milroy's disease (congenital lymphedema). Begins at infancy.

Meige's disease (lymphedema praecox). Often shows up during puberty or pregnancy, although it can occur later, through age 35.

Late-onset lymphedema (lymphedema tarda). Begins after age 35.


Secondary Lymphedema 

Secondary lymphedema is brought on as a result of another condition or disease which causes permanent damage to the lymphatic system. This often occurs from cancer treatments (lymph node removal and/or radiation), cancer, trauma, injury or infection.


Surgery - Removal/Injury of lymph nodes and vessels can cause lymphedema.

Radiation Treatment - Radiation can cause scarring and inflammation of the lymph nodes and/or lymph vessels which can cause lymphedema.


Cancer - Tumors can block lymphatic pathways which can cause lymphedema.

Trauma - Injury that causes permanent damage to the lymphatic system can cause lymphedema.

Infection - Infection of the lymph nodes or parasites within lymph vessels can cause lymphedema. Most infection-related lymphedema occurs in tropical and subtropical regions and in underdeveloped countries.

No matter how one develops lymphedema, those affected deal with the same health and psychological issues along with misdiagnosis and misunderstanding. 
Primary vs Secondary Lymphedema
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