Lymphedema is a common cause of leg and arm swelling and is due to the collection of too much lymph fluid. The most common is damage to the delicate vessels that hold the lymph fluid, called lymphatics.

Lymph fluid accumulates in the tissues of the arm or leg and causes swelling, when the lymphatics system is damaged.

Common causes of lymphatic damage include:

  • Surgery or radiation to treat cancer
  • Infection
  • Injury
  • Post-surgery onset

When the lymphedema is due to one of these causes, it is called secondary lymphedema.

In some cases, lymphedema may develop without any external injury to the lymphatics. This is called primary lymphedema. One form of primary lymphedema is an inherited condition, which begins during childhood or puberty.

Symptoms of lymphedema

Lymphedema presents as swelling of one or both of the legs or arms. If it occurs following surgery or radiation for cancer, it will present on the same side as where the cancer was treated. 

In more advanced cases, the swelling may become quite severe and disfiguring, so much so that it can interfere with daily activities and cause emotional distress. The swelling usually involves the feet and legs (or, in the case of arm edema, involves the hands in addition to the arms).

Occasionally, patients with lymphedema may develop skin infections, called cellulitis and lymphangitis. The skin will be red, painful, and warm, and fever may be present. If this develops, it is important to see a physician, so that appropriate antibiotics and skin care may be prescribed.

Diagnosis

You doctor will usually be able to diagnose lymphedema with an appropriate history and physical exam. It is important to differentiate lymphedema from other causes of swelling, such as a deep vein thrombosis, congestive heart failure, or kidney disease. Therefore, you may undergo one or more tests such as a duplex ultrasound, CT scan, or blood tests.

Treatment

The most important and effective treatment is compressive therapy. This usually means some type of prescription strength compression stocking or glove. Learn more about treatment for lymphedema arrows