Lymphedema is a disease of the lymphatic system. It occurs, when excess lymph fluid gets collected in the soft tissue beneath the skin. Lymph fluid is carried through the lymphatic vessels throughout the body. It is then drained in the chest, near the heart. If, the lymph nodes or lymphatic vessels get damaged due to any reason, it may cause restriction of flow of the lymph fluid. This leads to a collection of lymph fluid beneath the skin, resulting in lymphedema. It may cause severe swelling and pain.
Is Lymphedema Permanent?
Lymphedema, at present, has no known cure or treatment. Lymphedema may be called permanent, as it is not possible to reverse it. However, the symptoms can be managed and the swelling and pain can be reduced. Moreover, the progress of the disease to a later stage can also be delayed or prevented. To understand this better, let us have a look at the various stages of lymphedema.
Lymphedema can be classified in four stages. Each of the stages has some peculiar characteristics, though these are continuous stages. Stage 3 lymphedema is the most difficult to manage, though some symptomatic relief is possible. However, as mentioned earlier, there is no cure for this disease.
Stage 0 Lymphedema – Latency Stage or Non-Visible Stage
In this stage, the lymph flow is affected, but the swelling is not visible yet. One may feel tightness and heaviness in the affected body part though. This stage may take months or years before the first signs of swelling start to occur. The limb measurements may feel absolutely normal. However, if one is experiencing tightness or heaviness in the limbs despite the absence of apparent swelling, then it is advisable to seek medical help immediately, so that the lymphedema can be diagnosed and arrested at this stage. This will help in preventing the advancement of the lymphedema to a later stage.
Stage 1 Lymphedema – Mild Stage
This is a spontaneously reversible stage. This stage may exhibit mild swelling. The swelling will usually start in the furthest part of the limb and gradually move upwards as it progresses. This is caused because of gravity. When a person is lying down, the swelling may completely disappear, but it returns as soon as the person is up and about and slowly builds up throughout the day. Hence, keeping the affected limb in a raised position can effectively reduce the swelling. At this lymphedema stage, prompt treatment should be sought, in order to stop the progression of the disease.
Stage 2 Lymphedema – Moderate Stage
This is a spontaneously irreversible lymphedema stage. In this stage, the pitting effect in the skin slowly starts decreasing, as the collected fluid starts to become thick and fibrous. This gives a spongy look to the skin. In this stage, the swelling will not reduce even after the affected limb is elevated. This stage is still manageable in terms of reduction of swelling, with prompt treatment and compressions. The swelling is irreversible in this stage; however, it can be reduced by day and night compressions.
Stage 3 Lymphedema – Severe Stage
This stage is also known as lymphostatic elephantiasis stage. In this lymphedema stage, the skin gets a thick, scaly and enlarged appearance. Lymph fluid may also leak from the breaking skin. This is known as lymphorrhea. Skin folds get affected as they cannot be kept dry due to the lymph fluid leaking. This may lead to infections. The limb increases abnormally in weight and this may restrict the movements severely. This lymphedema stage, though not curable or reversible, can be managed effectively with treatments such as customized compressions and garments.
Lymphedema is permanent, as in, it is non-curable and non-treatable. The later stages cannot even be reversed. However, with early and prompt diagnosis and efficient management, the progress of the disease can be delayed, or in some instances, even prevented. Permanent cure is not yet possible though.