What is Lymphedema?

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Lymphatic obstruction is a blockage of the lymph vessels that drain fluid from tissues throughout the body and allow immune cells to travel where they are needed. Lymphatic obstruction may cause lymphedema, which means swelling due to a blockage of the lymph passages.

Causes of lymphatic obstruction include:

  • Injury
  • Radiation therapy
  • Skin infections such as cellulitis (more common in obese patients)
  • Surgery
  • Tumors

One of the most common causes of lymphedema is removal of the breast (mastectomy) and underarm lymph tissue for breast cancer. This causes lymphedema of the arm in 10 - 15% of patients, because the lymphatic drainage of the arm passes through the armpit (axilla).


The main symptom is persistent (chronic) swelling, usually of the arm or leg.

How is it diagnosed?

The doctor will perform a physical exam and ask questions about your medical history.
The following tests may be done:

  • CT or MRI scan
  • Lymphangiography
  • Lymphoscintigraphy  

Treatment for lymphedema includes:  

  • Compression (usually with multilayered bandages)
  • Manual lymph drainage (MLD)
  • Range of motion exercises
  • Surgery

 Wearing compression stockings on the affected area or using a pneumatic compression pump on and off may be helpful. Your doctor and physical therapist will decide which compression methods are best.
Manual lymph drainage is a light massage therapy technique in which the skin is moved in certain directions based on the structure of the lymphatic system. This helps the lymph fluid drain.
Treatment also includes skin care to prevent injuries, infection, and skin breakdown, as well as light exercise and movement programs.
Surgery may be an option in in some cases. Talk to your doctor about all treatment options. Lymphedema is the accumulation of fluid in the spaces between tissues found under the skin. It is the result of an overload of fluid not cleared by the lymphatic system. 

For further information please consult following chapter of Layman's Handbook of Venous Disorders: 

Chapter 20: Lymphedema Diagnosis and Therapy