Is it Edema or Lymphedema?

istock 913701478 1“My ankles are swollen after sitting at my desk all day.”

“When I go for a long walk, my fingers get puffy.”

“After breast cancer surgery, I started experiencing swelling in my arm.”

“My leg got bigger after I had a malignant growth removed from my thigh.”

These are not unusual complaints. If any of them sound familiar, it is probably because you have experienced some type of swelling, or edema, at some point in your life. Swelling is a common side effect of numerous triggers. A finger or part of the skin may swell after getting stung by a bee or after getting an injection. We don’t often think that edema could relate to the lymphatic system. Here, we discuss how to tell when it does.

Water located in the interstitial tissue spaces is fluid that has leaked out of blood capillaries. This accounts for a small percentage of the water content in the body but an important one. Edema is what results when too much water accumulates in the interstitial space. This can happen when too much water escapes blood capillaries or when water does not get reabsorbed efficiently. Edema is more of a symptom than a condition. Lymphedema, on the other hand, is the primary condition to manage.

Lymphedema is a condition of the lymphatic system. This system is a network of channels and lymph nodes that carry fluid consisting of water, white blood cells, and protein from interstitial spaces back to the bloodstream. Approximately 2 to 3 liters of lymphatic fluid is processed every day. This system does not have a pump like the vascular system, which is helped by the heart. Instead, the lymphatic system moves fluid with the help of small muscles called lymph angions. If any of these muscles are disrupted, lymphatic drainage may be interrupted to some degree. This is lymphedema.

Lymphedema is an insufficiency in the movement of lymph fluid through one or more parts of the body. It often occurs in the extremities or the trunk, neck, or head. Swelling from lymphedema may occur gradually or suddenly and is differentiated from edema by its high protein content. Unlike edema, lymphedema cannot be reversed. It requires management or treatment to address swelling that can become severe.

Lymphedema may be managed with treatments such as manual lymph drainage, a special type of massage. Patients may wear compression garments and perform prescribed decongestive exercises to reduce swelling. These strategies may help reduce symptoms but they cannot eliminate them. Here at our office at Keck Medicine, patients can explore the benefits of lymphedema surgery. This specialized technique creates a new pathway for lymph fluid to move through the body.

For more information regarding lymphedema surgery in the Los Angeles area, call 323-442-0416.

Posted in: Lymphedema Surgery

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