What Is Lymphedema?

Simply put, your lymphatic system is your body’s sewage system. The lymph vessels act like sewer pipes, transporting proteins, wastewater, fats and cell debris to one of the more than 600 lymph nodes in your body. The lymph nodes, like a treatment plant, filter the toxins which are then eliminated through your blood, kidneys or liver. If through natural causes, trauma, or surgery, any part of the system becomes compromised, the lymph fluid may begin to pool in one area, often an arm or a leg, causing a biological ‘backup’.

If left untreated, the affected body part begins to feel heavy, swell uncomfortably and the skin begins to tighten. As a result, nutrient-rich fluids are unable to reach the area, creating a good environment for bacterial and fungal infections. Without appropriate care, this condition tends to get worse with time, opening the door for infection and permanent hardening of the limb (fibrosis), limited mobility, and in extreme cases, massive swelling (elephantiasis).

There are two types of Lymphedema: Primary or idiopathic (of unknown origin) and Secondary.

  • Primary Lymphedema is genetic in origin and is the least understood, therefore the most undiagnosed or misdiagnosed form of the condition. In about 70% of reported cases, it affects one leg, usually starting at the foot or calf. It can, however, affect both legs, the trunk, genitals, arms and face. Primary Lymphedema can be present at birth or appear later in life, sometimes triggered by hot weather, pregnancy, traumatic events or local infection.
  • Secondary Lymphedema is caused by an obstruction or failure of the lymphatic system due to infection, malignancy, traumatic injury, surgery, scar tissue or as a result of parasitic infection (rare in North America).

Most cases of Secondary Lymphedema are caused by the removal of lymph nodes, cancer-related treatment, traumatic injuries, or surgery. Swelling that people experience directly after surgery is a part of the normal process of healing. This swelling is called ‘edema’. If the lymph system is functioning well, the fluid causing the swelling will slowly be re-absorbed and the affected area will return to normal. However, if the lymph system is blocked or damaged as a result of surgery or trauma, Lymphedema may result and the fluid will remain present.

At Sunnybrae Therapeutics, our therapists are trained to professionally administer the appropriate course of treatment to help you manage Lymphedema. If you have any questions or would like to book an appointment please contact us at 902-425-7759.