Types of lymphedema

Primary – the lymph vessels are often absent, smaller, or dysfunctional; occurs without any obvious causes; may be present at birth or occur later in life. It is more common in legs.

Secondary – often caused by surgical removal of lymph nodes in cancer treatment; can also be caused by infections, radiation treatment, trauma, scar tissue, and medical conditions, such as chronic venous insufficiency. The major causes are from cancer and its treatment, such as the removal of axillary lymph nodes and radiation to treat breast cancer. As many as 15-30% of breast cancer patients are at risk for developing lymphedema.

Symptoms of lymphedema

  • Noticeable swelling of a body part – often an arm, leg, or chest/trunk area
  • Condition worsens over time
  • Heaviness, denseness, or aching in the swollen body part
  • Decreased movement or range of motion in the body part
  • A feeling of “fullness” in the swollen body part
  • Thickening and hardening of the skin
  • Leakage of fluid from swollen body part
  • In some cases, massive swelling and skin changes called “elephantitis.”