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Lymphedema: An Overview to Guard Your Health

Lymphedema is a chronic clinical condition characterized by either structural damage or loss of function involving lymphatic circulation. The lymphatic system contains numerous tiny vessels and small organs called lymph nodes that work in conjunction to carry lymph throughout the body. Lymph is a fluid made up of white blood cells as well as fats, glucose, salts, and proteins. One of the important roles of lymph fluid is to nourish the cells and tissues of various organs. Another is to capture waste and cellular debris as a way of protecting the body from infection and disease.

The term “edema” means swelling. Therefore, lymphedema is a condition that relates to swelling caused by a disruption within the lymph system. Lymphedema is a chronic condition that can be prevented but not cured; managed through a variety of lifestyle remedies and, if necessary, medical intervention.

There are several reasons why lymphedema may develop. The condition often originates as an aftereffect of cancer treatment that involves lymph node removal. Injuries including deep bruises or cuts may also affect the circulation of lymph, as may infection or congenital anomaly.

Symptoms of Lymphedema

With edema being the term that describes swelling, it’s clear that one of the primary symptoms of this condition is swelling. Usually, when swelling does occur, it is noticeable in an arm or leg, or both. However, it is possible (and beneficial) to catch signs of lymphedema before significant swelling develops. Signs of poor lymphatic circulation include:

  • A sense of tightness, weakness or fullness in an affected arm or leg.
  • Tightness or fullness may also occur in the armpit or chest.
  • Pain or aching in an arm, leg, or both.
  • Swelling may be noticed as rings or clothing no longer fitting well.

The severity of lymphedema symptoms may relate to the stage of circulatory disruption in the lymph system. Lymphedema has several stages, ranging from:

  • Stage 1: Mildly poor lymphatic flow without symptoms.
  • Stage 2: Mild swelling due to fluid accumulation. Swelling resolves with elevation.
  • Stage 3: Persistent, mild to moderate swelling. The skin may thicken or develop scars.
  • Stage 4: Severe swelling, or elephantiasis, deforms a limb. Extensive scarring on the skin.

Lymphedema Management

We are proud to offer comprehensive care for patients with lymphedema. To learn more or schedule an appointment with lymphedema specialist Dr. Ketan Patel, contact Keck Medicine of USC.

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