Lymphedema: symptoms and causes


Lymphedema is a long-term (chronic) condition that produces swelling in the body’s tissues, usually in the arms or legs. It develops when the lymphatic system does not work properly and too much lymph fluid accumulates.


The lymphatic system is a network of channels and glands throughout the body that helps fight infection. Any type of problem that blocks the drainage of lymph fluid can cause lymphedema. There are two types: primary and secondary.

  • Primary lymphedema is very rare and is caused by faulty genes inherited at birth.
  • Secondary lymphedema develops as a result of another condition or disease, for example surgery, infection, parasites or cancer treatment.


The most common symptom of lymphedema is swelling in a limb. At first, the swelling is soft and fluid, and may improve with rest. In time, however, it can become more dense and fibrous, as well as harder to treat.

A patient may also experience pain, itchiness, heaviness, skin infections, as well as a limited range of motion in the affected limb.

When to see a doctor

See a doctor if you notice persistent swelling in an arm or leg. Early detection is critically important as it allows for early treatment. 

Lymphedema can potentially affect anyone, but some groups of people are more at risk, particularly cancer patients. In addition, those who are overweight or who have a family history of the disease, are also susceptible to developing it.

Prevention and complications

Lymphedema is a major health issue in itself. Skin infections and impaired mobility may dramatically worsen a patient’s quality of life, both physically and psychologically.

Several studies have shown that obesity can increase the risk of secondary lymphedema as it stresses the lymphatic vessels and nodes. Thus, healthy lifestyle habits such as maintaining an adequate weight, low fat intake and regular physical exercise, help prevent the development of this disease.

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