What is Lymphedema?
Lymphedema is a type of swelling that occurs in certain areas of the body. These areas commonly include the arms and legs. This swelling is caused by lymphatic vessels that are damaged, dysfunctioning, or overloaded. The lymphatic system helps the fight disease and infection. The lymphatic system does this by carrying fluid containing white blood cells, lymph, throughout the body.
At first, the leg will swell with fluid which can be moved around and the swelling will go down. Eventually, proteins will be deposited in the tissues and the foot, ankle, and heel can develop a hump. Additionally, the toes can become a square shape, the skin thickens and blisters can form. Patients with lymphedema are at a much higher risk of getting an infection in the tissues called cellulitis.
Types of Lymphedema
There are two categories of lymphedema, primary and secondary. Both categories have a number of causes and, when left untreated, can result in a loss of function and mobility and can result in chronic infections and illnesses. Primary lymphedema is a rare, inherited condition caused by lymph-vessel issues and primarily affects women. It is primarily a result of Milroy’s Disease, Meige’s Disease, and Late-Onset Lymphedema.
The second category of lymphedema is secondary lymphedema. This category of lymphedema comes from conditions or procedures that damage the lymph nodes or lymph vessels. These causes can include surgery, radiation treatment, cancer, and infection.
Lymphedema commonly occurs in the arms or legs. At first, swelling may be barely but can become so extreme that using the appendage becomes impossible. In many cases, symptoms of lymphedema include:
- A full or heavy sensation
- Aching or discomfort
- Hardening and thickening of the skin
- Lack of indentation in the skin when pressed
- Recurring infections
- Restricted range of movement
- Small warts or blisters that leak clear fluids
- Swelling, possibly including fingers or toes
- Tight or shiny skin
- Tighter-fitting rings and watches
Diagnosis of Lymphedema
Occasionally, a simple exam by Dr. Draughn, of Vein Specialists of the Carolinas, can be sufficient in diagnosing lymphedema. During an exam, Dr. Draughn will measure the affected limb against the unaffected one. If this is not sufficient, other ways to diagnose lymphedema can include CT or MRI scans for taking images of the anatomy. Additionally, a doppler ultrasounds test can determine blood flow using frequency sound waves. If needed, radionuclide imaging can be used. The patient will receive a small dose of a radioactive chemical to create an image. The type of testing needed will vary based on the patient and the degree of the condition.
Causes of Lymphedema
Lymphedema occurs when the veins cannot empty correctly. Lymphedema can also cause a number of issues to occur. These include loss of peristalsis or valve function, infection damaged lymphatics, and may result in lymph nodes needing to be removed during surgery.
The main goals of lymphedema treatment is to reduce swelling and controlling pain from getting worse. Unless fighting infection, drugs are not common in treating lymphedema. Treatment options include using compression garments. Here at Vein Specialists of the Carolinas we carry the full line of Sigvaris compression garments. Sleeping with a wedge pillow or having an adjustable bed for overnight leg elevation can work wonders. In other cases, patients do complete decongestive physical therapy that implements massage and wrapping. Finally, we recommend lymphedema pumps, specifically the Flexitouch and Biotab pumps. For certain cases, treatment options can be combined and surgery is an option is excess fluid is to be drained and tissue removed.
Complications of Lymphedema
In addition to the restricted movement of limbs, lymphedema complications can include:
- Cellulitis, a bacterial infection of the skin and its tissues
- Deep venous thrombosis, blood-clot formation in the deeper veins
- Lymphangiosarcoma, rare but aggressive cancer of the lymphatic vessels
- Lymphangitis, an inflammation of the lymphatic vessels
Unfortunately, there is no way to prevent primary lymphedema but patients can reduce the risk of developing secondary lymphedema by:
- Avoiding cuts or wounds to the limb to prevent infection
- Avoiding heat on the affected limb
- Beginning treatment as soon as symptoms occur
- Elevating the limb to keep fluid from collecting
- Keeping fluid from collecting by not crossing the legs or wearing tight clothing
- Keeping skin and nails clean to prevent infection
- Remaining hydrated
Schedule a Consultation
If you suffer from Lymphedema and are looking for treatment, call 704-544-5245 to schedule a consultation. Vein Specialists of the Carolinas serves Charlotte, Gastonia, and surrounding areas in North Carolina.