Lymphedema: An accumulation of high protein fluid that is unable to be transported from extremities, head, abdomen or other parts of the body. The accumulation of fluid may lead to discomfort, infections, disfigurement, or even disability. It is caused by a malformation or malfunction of the lymphatic system.
There are two types of Lymphedema:
Primary Lymphedema: Caused by malformations in the lymphatic system, and is most commonly experienced by women. The symptoms may be present at birth, or may develop later, often during puberty or pregnancy. The most commonly affected area is in the legs, but arms and the torso can also be affected.
Secondary Lymphedema: Normally a result of damage to the lymphatic system, and often caused by mastectomies, lumpectomies, with radiation and/or the removal of lymph nodes. Other causes may include traumatic injury, infection, scar tissue, or severe venous insufficiency. The most commonly affected areas with secondary lymphedema are the arms, but the legs can also be affected.
Lymphedema commonly develops in one arm or one leg, but can appear in both arms or legs. Less commonly it appears on the hands, feet, and sometimes the chest, back, neck, face, abdomen and genitals.
Primary Lymphedema is an inherited condition in approximately 0.6% of live births. The lymphatic vessels are either missing or impaired and can affect from one to as many as four limbs and/or other parts of the body, including internal organs. It can be present at birth, develop at the onset of puberty or present in adulthood, with no apparent causes. Other lymphatic diseases include lipedema, cystic hygromas, lymphangiomas, lymphangiectasias, lymphangiomatosis and other mixed vascular/lymphatic malformation syndromes and conditions, such as Turner-Weber and Klippel Trenauney Syndrome.
Secondary Lymphedema (acquired regional lymphatic insufficiency) is a common problem among adults and children in the United States. It can occur following any trauma, infection or surgery that disrupts the lymphatic channels or results in the loss of lymph nodes. Among the more than 3 million breast cancer survivors alone, acquired or secondary lymphedema is believed to be present in approximately 30% of these individuals, predisposing them to the same long-term problems as described above.
Lymphedema also results from prostate, uterine, cervical, abdominal, orthopedic, cosmetic (liposuction) and other surgeries, malignant melanoma, and treatments used for both Hodgkin's and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Radiation, sports injuries, tattooing, and any physical insult to the lymphatic pathways can also cause lymphedema. Even though lymphatic insufficiency may not immediately present at the time any of the events occur, these individuals are at life-long risk for the onset of lymphedema.