Marga F. Massey, MD, CLT, FACS is board certified in Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery with a commitment to women who are beginning their journey in the world of breast cancer.Learn More
What is Lymphedema?
Lymphedema is a medical condition where protein-rich fluid known as lymph collects typically in the arms or legs resulting in pain, decreased mobility, recurrent soft tissue infections and permanent disability.
Lymphedema appears in 2 forms, a categorization based on its etiology, either primary or secondary.
Congenital lymphedema is an in-born abnormality were lymphatic channels and/or their nodal basin in the axilla or groin regions fail to develop normally. This congenital condition is also known as "primary lymphedema" and commonly presents in infancy. Primary congenital lymphedema typically affects only one limb and should not be confused with lipedema that symmetrically affects bilateral limbs. Congenital lymphedema that presents in teenage years is known at lymphedema praecox and as lymphedema tarda when presenting as an adult. These disorders must be examined closely as they may indicate the presence of a cancerous process with compression of the lymphatic system versus a congenital disorder.
Secondary lymphedema is a medical condition where damage occurs to the lymphatic system. The most common injury is surgical whereby lymph nodes are removed for the treatment for a variety of cancers. To further complicate the situation, many of these patients undergo irradiation therapy that can worsen the condition.
Conventional treatment for lymphedema includes manual lymphatic massage and the use of compression bandages and garments. This approach is designed to minimize the accumulation of lymphatic fluid within the soft tissue of the affected limb. Uncontrolled collections of lymphedema fluid can be painful and can be a set up for recurrent soft tissue infections. Profound, chronic lymphedema, commonly referred to as elephantiasis, can result in open, non-healing ulcers and a woody appearance of extremity skin, the effects of which are irreversible.