Lymphedema is a fairly common disease that remains unknown due to its causes and outcomes. Lymphedema will appear when the lymphatic flow is disrupted. It allows lymph, a body fluid, to circulate throughout the body and be filtered through the lymph nodes to eliminate harmful cells.
The lymphatic system maintains the immune system by filtering and circulating defense cells throughout the body. The lymphatic vessels that coat the lymph, a liquid derived from blood and loaded with cellular waste, carry it to the lymph nodes, which allows it to be purified.
In short, the lymphatic system allows the lymph to circulate throughout the body and be filtered through the lymph nodes to eliminate harmful cells. Its main roles are:
- An active contribution to the immune system
- The circulation of nutrients and hormones
- Maintaining fluid balance in the body
- The circulation of white blood cells
- Active participation in detoxification
A dysfunction in the lymphatic system can lead to lymphedema, swelling of an organ or tissue by the accumulation of lymph in the interstitial medium.
What is lymphedema?
By definition, lymphedema is a swelling caused by the abnormal accumulation of fluids due to a malfunction of the lymphatic system.
This lymphedema will generally develop in areas of the body where lymph nodes such as the armpit, neck, groin or pelvis are present. Its development is unpredictable, but most often caused by surgery or radiation therapy as part of cancer treatment. There’re two types of lymphedema:
- Primary lymphedema: This type of lymphedema is present from birth and results in an abnormality of the lymphatic system and vessels. On the other hand, it is noted that its appearance can occur well after birth, generally without known reasons.
- Secondary lymphedema: Secondary lymphedema is the most common. It occurs when the lymphatic system is damaged as a result of trauma, surgery or radiation therapy.
What are the causes of lymphedema?
Lymphedema can be caused by several factors:
- Surgery as part of cancer treatment, for example
- Radiation therapy in the lymph nodes
- An infection or inflammation that will cause a lymphatic circulation problem
- An injury to the lymph nodes
- Congenital lymphedema (birth)
What are the symptoms of lymphedema?
Symptoms of lymphedema can change depending on the type of lymphedema. Here are the main ones:
- Gradual or sudden visible swelling of the skin due to the mark left by pressure on the skin of tight clothing or jewelry (e. g. swollen foot, swollen legs or swollen armpit)
- Increased swelling in wet and hot weather or after exercise
- An impression of heaviness, tingling
- Pain, slinging or tenderness
How to treat lymphedema?
Treatments to reduce swelling
This treatment includes two techniques: the multi-layer bandage technique and lymphatic drainage, which is a massage that will reduce swelling. Ask your doctor for more information about the different tips to follow when you have lymphedema.
Treatments to control swelling
Compression stockings and garments are chosen according to the condition, in order to reduce discomfort in the lower or upper limbs. As an integral part of the treatment plan, elastic and inelastic compression garments help to reduce swelling, relieve pain and stabilize the condition by preventing lymphedema from getting worse. These medical clothes have been carefully selected for the medical condition, according to the patient’s needs. The compression class is always determined by the attending physician.
Validated by Annie Pépin, Compression garments clinician at Médicus