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Lymphedema: Symptoms and Treatments

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Lymphedema: Symptoms and Treatments

Lymphedema is a condition that causes swelling in the body, usually in the arms and legs. It typically occurs when a person’s lymph nodes are damaged or removed, which is common in some cancer patients. Lymphedema causes blockages in the lymphatic system, which clears the body of toxins and waste as part of the body’s natural immune system. The blockage can prevent fluid from draining properly, which is what leads to swelling.

Lymphedema exhibits different symptoms in different people. If left untreated for an extended period, it can lead to more serious conditions such as skin infections, bacteremia, and permanent cosmetic changes. This change in bodily appearance, especially for cancer patients, can lead to an increased risk of negative psychological effects such as depression. It’s important to note that lymphedema can develop over time, so it may not show symptoms until months or even years after cancer treatments have ended. There is no known cure, but doctors typically recommend a few treatments to help with symptom management. Here are the most common symptoms and treatments for lymphedema.  

Symptoms of Lymphedema

Swelling

Caused by fluid buildup, swelling is the most common symptom of lymphedema. It can be anywhere from mild to severe, depending on the case. Swelling can cause discomfort and difficulty moving. A person suffering from lymphedema may be able to see a physical change in the appearance of their arms or legs. The arms and legs may look swollen and puffy, feel uncomfortable, and appear to be a larger size than normal. Anyone experiencing abnormal swelling of the legs or arms should consult a doctor right away. 

Difficulty moving normally 

Difficulty moving normally is another symptom many people living with lymphedema face. The restricted range of motion is usually a result of excess swelling and pain from movement. This can limit a person’s ability to exercise, move around, and even complete normal day-to-day tasks. At the beginning stages of development, the swelling may appear subtle, and the limb may feel soft to the touch. Over time, the swelling may become more severe, and the limb may feel tougher to the touch. The skin may even turn a grainy texture, and the person may feel denser. The range of motion restrictions should be limited to the swollen limbs, but consult a doctor if it seems to affect more than just your limbs.  

Pain and discomfort 

Pain and discomfort are more symptoms that often come with lymphedema. The swelling of the arms, legs, or both most commonly cause these sensations. Excessive swelling can cause the skin to feel tight and full, while moving the affected limbs can feel painful and over-exerting. If pain or discomfort is intolerable or worsens, seek medical attention right away. Fatigue is another common symptom that goes along with pain and discomfort in patients suffering from lymphedema.   

Skin thickening or hardening 

The skin can appear to thicken and feel rougher to the touch for patients with severe or advanced forms of lymphedema.  

Condition progression

Lymphedema has no known cure, and if left untreated, it can cause permanent damage to the body’s soft tissue. Tissue damage cannot be reversed, and any damage that occurs cannot be fixed. Below are the stages and symptoms of lymphedema.

Stage zero

Stage zero is the earliest stage for lymphedema. During stage zero, the lymph transport system is functioning abnormally. Patients may exhibit few noticeable symptoms at this stage—or none at all—although symptoms will start to develop and eventually worsen as the condition progresses. Stage zero often begins 12 to 18 months after injury to the lymph nodes or their removal.

Stage one

Stage one lymphedema is the stage at which patients may start experiencing mild symptoms. This happens when stage zero progresses after not being treated or managed properly, which is common because there are typically no symptoms at stage zero. Patients may begin to experience mild to moderate edema, or swelling. More symptoms at this stage can include fatigue and a tingling sensation in the affected limb. When a patient presses on the swollen limb at this stage, a temporary dent or pit will form. The edema at stage one should lessen or go away with proper and consistent elevation of the affected limb. The limbs most often affected are the legs, arms, and feet.

Stage two

Stage two lymphedema is considered moderate. The affected limbs will appear very noticeably swollen. Edema does not lessen with elevation, and it can seem unmanageable. At this stage, the swelling may not create small pits or dents when pressed on. This is a sign of worsening lymphedema. It’s crucial for the patient to seek medical attention at this point, if they have not done so already. Stage two lymphedema likely involves irreversible damage to the body’s tissue, but the patient can still manage symptoms with proper treatment.

Stage three

Stage three is the most advanced stage of lymphedema. The affected limbs will become severely swollen by this stage and appear large and misshapen. Skin changes can also occur; the skin may appear leathery and feel harder. At this stage, there will probably be extreme tissue damage that cannot be cured. Symptom management is difficult at this stage.

Treatments

Lymphedema has no known cure, but patients can take steps to manage their symptoms and prevent or lessen further tissue damage. Many doctors recommend elevating the swollen area until swelling subsides. Another way to manage swelling is to wear compression garments such as open-toe compression thigh-highs. These may reduce swelling and prevent future swelling. Another common symptom management method is massage; gently massaging the affected limbs may work to reduce swelling.

It’s very important for a patient to talk to a doctor or medical care team if they’re experiencing any symptoms that may point to the development or potential diagnosis of lymphedema. Ignoring symptoms will only lead to more bodily damage. If you or someone you know is experiencing swelling and has sustained damage to lymph nodes in the past five years, contact a doctor right away.

Lymphedema

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  • Elyse Aufmann
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