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Lymphedema is a very common and serious condition, affecting approximately 10 million Americans. It results from impaired flow of the lymphatic system, resulting in an abnormal accumulation of water and proteins principally in the subcutaneous tissues.

Lymphedema is classified as primary (congenital or hereditary) or secondary (caused by a known insult to the lymphatic system).

Early symptoms of lymphedema may be noticed as a feeling of heaviness, tingling, tightness and warmth, redness/discoloration of the skin or pain in the affected area. These symptoms may present before there is obvious swelling the in an arm or leg. As lymphedema progresses to a more moderate to severe state, the swelling in the involved area becomes more pronounced. Long term accumulation of water and proteins in the tissues lead to inflammation and scarring of the tissues.

Lymphedema may be present in the extremities, trunk, abdomen, head and neck, external genitalia, and internal organs: its onset is gradual in some patients and sudden in others. Most patients in the United States develop secondary lymphedema after surgery and/or radiation therapy for various cancers (breast, uterus, prostate, bladder, lymphoma and melanoma). Secondary lymphedema can also occur after trauma, burns, infection, malignant tumors, immobility, chronic venous insufficiency or deep vein thrombosis. Lymphedema may develop anytime during the course of a lifetime in primary cases. Secondary cases may occur immediately post-operative, within a few months, after a couple of years or 20 or more years after surgery.

Lymphedema is serious because it continues to progress if left untreated. If lymphedema combines with other pathologies (cardiac or venous insufficiency, chronic arthritic conditions, etc.), the pathophysiological effects are further exacerbated due to the additional stress placed on the already compromised lymphatic system.

There is no cure for lymphedema but it can be treated. Treatment is designed to reduce the swelling and control discomfort and other symptoms. Treatment for lymphedema consists of patient education on how to manage lymphedema and keep it in check. Methods of treatment include exercise, manual lymph drainage, and use of compression garments, compression bandages and pneumatic compression pumps.

This information provided by our experts at The Breast Center and West Texas Therapy.

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