Chronic lymphedema, if left untreated, leads to severe complications. When the lymph does not properly flows through the lymphatic vessels due to either primary lymphedema or secondary lymphedema, the interstitial space is filled with the fluid which leads to infection. Further, the depression due to lymphedema also adds to emotional complexity.
Can Lymphedema Be Fatal?
Lymphedema is the condition wherein the capacity of the lymphatic system in collecting the fluid is severely reduced and the fluid remains in the tissues which results in the swelling of affected organ. On the basis of severity of the disease lymphedema is divided in to four stages. The stages are progressive and if left untreated may lead to serious complications. The most serious complication of later stage lymphedema is cellulitis. The lymph fluid which is stagnant in the interstitial tissue is a favorable place for bacterial growth. The cellulitis can be treated with the use of antibiotics. But in the lymphostatic elephantiasis, the tissue ruptures due to swelling and there are high chances of severe infections. This infection, if not managed properly lead to fatal consequences. If the therapy is not started immediately for infection, this may cause sepsis and the infection may target various vital organs such as lungs or kidney. Further to this complication, the wound is very difficult to heal, and proper care is required to clean the wound. The wound is also susceptible for viral and fungal infections. In more severe cases, tissue necrosis occurs, and the amputation of the affected organ is suggested.
Another related complication of the disease is depression. Although not fatal and manageable, this may lead to suicidal thoughts. The person affected with lymphedema has reduced activity and movement resulting in social isolation. As the disease progresses, movement becomes completely restricted and the patient remains on either bed or on wheelchair.
Symptoms of Lymphedema
The signs and symptoms of lymphedema vary according to the stage of lymphedema. As the lymphedema progresses, symptoms are more severe. Following are symptoms of lymphedema:
Pitting of the skin wherein pressure is applied on the skin and indentation, so caused does not disappear immediately.
- Numbness or tingling sensation
- Discomfort and limb heaviness.
- Tightening of watches, clothes and jewelry.
- Infection of the skin.
- Swelling of the limbs or chest area.
Types of Lymphedema
On the basis of the development of the lymphedema, they are divided in to following two types:
Primary Lymphedema: This type of lymphedema occurs due to the abnormal development of lymph vessels and nodes. This condition remains in the body right from the birth but shows its existence in the later part of life. The most common site for primary lymphedema is legs and the condition is majorly seen in women. Three types of primary lymphedema exist depending upon the age in which the symptom occurs. The congenital lymphedema present from the birth, the praecox lymphedema occurs at the age between 3 to 25 years, and the lymphedema tarda occurs after 35.
Secondary Lymphedema: This type of lymphedema occurs due to the damage in the lymphatic system or there are some changes in the metabolic behavior inside the body. The lymphatic system gets damaged or blocked due to the conditions such as infection, radiation therapy, or any other external injury. This can also be caused due to surgical removal of lymph nodes or vessels at the time of cancer surgery. Also, the secondary lymphedema is caused due to increase in interstitial fluid beyond the manageable capacity of lymphatic system. This may be due to high body temperature or inflammation in the body.
Lymphedema, if managed properly, is treatable. The requirement is just to notice the initial symptoms and prevent the disease to progress to next stage. If left untreated, the major complication emerged is of cellulitis, which at times becomes severe and unmanageable. This also leads to opportunistic infection and the amputation of the affected organ. Also, at times, the infection attacks the healthy vital organs with fatal consequences. Depression is another complication.