Lymphedema occurs when lymphatic fluid builds up in the soft tissues of your body, usually in an arm or leg. The lymphatic system consists of lymph vessels and lymph nodes that run through your body. Lymph vessels collect a fluid that is made up of protein, water, fats, and wastes from the cells of the body. Lymph vessels carry this fluid to your lymph nodes. Lymph nodes filter waste materials and foreign products, then return the fluid to your blood. If your vessels or nodes become damaged or are missing, the lymph fluid cannot move freely through the system. The fluid can then build up and cause swelling in the affected arms or legs. There are two types of lymphedema:
Inherited lymphedema or primary lymphedema, in which you are born lacking lymph vessels and nodes. The swelling usually appears during your adolescence and affects your foot or calf. A rare form of primary lymphedema develops in infancy and is called Milroy's disease
Acquired lymphedema or secondary lymphedema, in which an injury to your lymphatic system causes lymphedema. It is much more common than primary lymphedema
Some people develop chronic lymphedema, which can last for the rest of your life. Chronic lymphedema can be a difficult form of lymphedema to treat. Swollen limbs become vulnerable to infection. Any kind of injury to the skin, such as a cut, scratch, insect bite, or even athlete's foot between your toes can cause a severe infection, which physicians call lymphangitis. Lymphangitis affects the connective tissue under your skin. Repeated infections can cause scarring that makes the tissue vulnerable to more swelling and infection. This leads to the tissue hardening, called fibrosis, which is characteristic of advanced chronic lymphedema. How is lymphedema treated?
If you are at risk for developing lymphedema, you can act to prevent it. If you have mild lymphedema, you can act to keep the condition from worsening. You can take the following precautions...