Lymphedema is a disease that presents with a swelling of one or both limbs, or any other part of the body, due to a collection of excess lymph fluid. Lymph fluid flows through the lymphatic vessels, which are a part of our lymphatic system. Our immune system has the lymphatic system as one of it’s most important components. The lymph nodes in the lymphatic system are responsible for the filtering out of bacteria, viruses and other harmful substance from our body. When the lymph fluid flows through the lymphatic vessels, it passes through the lymph nodes where it is filtered; and harmful substances are removed. When these lymph nodes are removed; or lymphatic vessels are blocked due to some reasons, the flow of the lymph fluid may get obstructed, causing excess fluid built up beneath the skin. This causes swelling in the affected part. This is also called secondary lymphedema. Usually, the limbs-one or both are affected, but other parts may get affected too.
Sometimes, lymphedema occurs on its own, without any associated history of any procedure or medical condition. This is called primary lymphedema. This is fairly a rare phenomenon though.
Is Lymphedema Painful?
Well, yes, lymphedema can be quite painful, especially in the later stages. This is because, as the disease progresses, it causes increased swelling and fluid collection in the affected part. The affected part may start feeling heavier and tighter due to the collection of fluid underneath the skin. If this fluid weight starts putting pressure on the nearby vessels and nerves, it can prove to be quite painful. Also, if there is an infection in the affected part, that may also result in pain.
Other symptoms in lymphedema, apart from swelling and pain are-
- Inflammation, due to the continuous collection of fluid. The tissues get damaged due to this.
- The swelling worsens; and the skin becomes taught, thick and leathery in appearance.
- There is a non-pitting edema, meaning that the indent after applying the pressure does not retain its shape and bounces back.
- The skin may thicken and give away an orange-peel appearance.
- If the skin breaks, the lymph fluid may leak out, making it difficult to keep the area dry and free from infections.
- The affected area may get sore, or feel tender
- The increased weight of the limb may restrict the day to day movements.
- The affected area may feel warm or itchy, due to stretching of skin and also if there is an infection present.
- There may be tingling or numbness even before the swelling is visible, as the nerves may get affected due to the excess fluid collection.
- If there is an infection, there may be fever present.
- The joint movements may get affected too, especially if the limbs are involved.
Lymphedema is quite painful especially in its later stages. All of the above symptoms can lead to pain as well. With some medications and other procedures, the symptoms of lymphedema can be tackled.
Use of compression treatments for lymphedema can be done in order to compress the swollen area and reduce the swelling and scarring.
Bandages and elastic sleeves can be used to wrap the affected area tightly far away from the trunk and loosely near the trunk, so that the lymph flow can be prompted towards the trunk for easy drainage.
Manual compression with massage for lymphedema can be recommended in order to help the drainage of the lymph fluid.
Some exercises can be carried out for lymphedema to stimulate the arm and leg muscles and thereby improve lymph flow towards the trunk.
Surgical procedures for lymphedema are reserved for very severe cases.
Lymphedema cannot be cured or treated. It is an irreversible damage to the lymphatic system. However, with early detection and prompt medical attention, the disease can be prevented from progressing to more severe stages.