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Raising Lymphedema Awareness: Causes and the Best Treatment Options

lymphedemaLymphedema is a condition that occurs when there is an excess of protein-rich fluid in the body. This happens due to a blockage in the lymphatic system, which can be caused by cancer treatments or parasites. According to the Library of Medicine, more than 140 million suffer from this condition! To spread awareness, let’s take a look at what it is, as well as the causes, symptoms, and complications. 

What is Lymphedema?

The body’s lymphatic system drains lymph fluid, but lymphedema occurs when this protein-rich liquid is not drained and piles up. The limbs are affected the most, but the genitals, abdomen, neck, and chest can also be affected. What often causes lymphedema is when the lymph nodes are damaged or compromised, which usually occurs during cancer treatments. Any condition or problem that stops this fluid from being drained can cause lymphedema. In severe cases, people can lose the ability to move and are prone to infections and sepsis in the area. So, what are the causes of this condition? Let’s take a look!

What Causes Lymphedema?

what causes lymphedema
The lymphatic system is part of the immune system and is responsible for carrying protein-rich fluids throughout the body. Lymph nodes filter the fluid and help fight cancer cells and infections in the body. Muscles contract and push the liquid around the body as we move and carry out daily tasks, but when this cannot happen or the fluid cannot drain, it is often because of a blockage in an arm or leg.

Here are 4 common causes of lymphedema:

  1. Surgery – Although it’s not common to get lymphedema during surgery, it is possible. When doctors operate and perform cancer surgery, they often remove lymph nodes to see if the cancer has spread.
  2. Parasites – Long thread-like worm parasites are the most prominent cause of lymphedema in developing countries, as they can block lymph nodes. 
  3. Cancer – A tumor that grows close to lymph nodes or lymph vessels can block the fluid’s drainage system, causing a build-up and possibly resulting in lymphedema. 
  4. Radiation – During radiation and cancer treatment, it is common for lymph nodes and lymph vessels to be damaged, resulting in lymphedema. 

Symptoms and Complications of Lymphedema

lymphedema symptoms
Symptoms

  • Frequent infections
  • Fibrosis (skin thickens and hardens)
  • Not being as mobile or feeling stiffness
  • Swelling of part of limbs, including fingers and toes
  • Heaviness or tightness in the area

The symptoms and signs of lymphedema depend on the severity of the condition. It is also common for lymphedema caused by cancer treatments to not show any indicators until months or years after treatment. It is essential to see a doctor if there is any swelling of the limbs. This usually occurs in one area. If someone has already been diagnosed, then it is vital that the area is monitored and that if there are any changes, the individual report them to their doctor as soon as possible. 

Complications 

Skin leakage – Lymphedema can cause severe swelling, which can cause lymph fluid to leak through blisters or skin breaks. 

Sepsis – Sepsis can be life-threatening! If infections are not treated or left too long, it can spread into the bloodstream. The body will then destroy and damage its own tissue to try to eliminate the infection. 

Skin changes – The skin of an infected area can become rough, hard, and thick. In some cases, your skin can feel like an elephant’s. 

Cancer – The most severe cases of lymphedema can result in a rare type of tissue cancer if it’s not treated. 

Skin infections – Skin infections or cellulitis occur when there’s a build-up of fluid. This is the breeding ground for bacteria and germs. Even the smallest wound can become infected!

Diagnosing and Treating Lymphedema

lymphoedema treatment - lymphedema therapies
Diagnosis

Doctors ask for two things before screening: symptoms and medical history. This is then followed by an examination to take a closer look at your lymph nodes and lymphatic system.

Here are some other tests a doctor might run:

  • MRI scans
  • Lymphoscintigraphy
  • Ultrasound
  • CT scan

Treatments 

Unfortunately, there is no cure for lymphedema, but there are ways to help treat and manage symptoms – they are: 

  • Medication
  • Exercises
  • Manual lymph drainage
  • Compression bandages
  • Compression clothes
  • Sequential pneumatic compression
  • Lymph node transplant
  • New drainage paths
  • Removing fibrous tissue

Conclusion

Lymphedema should not be left untreated since this is a life-threatening condition. Now, there aren’t any cures, but there are effective ways to help treat and manage the symptoms you are experiencing. They include meditating, exercising, lymph draining, wearing compression items, and surgery.   

If you or anyone you know are experiencing symptoms like infection, stiffness, swelling, or any heaviness, contact a healthcare professional. Your quality of life depends on it!

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