Lymphedema is a build-up of lymphatic fluid that causes a swelling in a part of the body. Mostly this concerns the limbs, but also back or abdominal cavity can be struck. Edema occurs if the veins or lymphatic vessels are damaged. When the damage is so great that the lymphatic drainage is blocked abnormal amounts of protein rich liquids will be collected in the soft tissues of mostly the arms and legs.
If edema is not treated the proteins accumulate and block the drains so that the transport of oxygen through the body becomes worse . It affects the healing of wounds , which can consequently become open wounds which are an excellent breeding ground for bacteria , so there may be all kinds of infections occurring.
Lymphedema can origin without any known cause , often at birth. This is called primary lymphedema. If lymphedema is present at birth it is often idiopathic or associated with a poor veins/ lymphatic system caused by hemangiomas or lymphangiomas.
A surgery in the vicinity of lymph junctions , such as axillary lymph node removal in breast cancer or in an abdominal surgery, can lead to secondary lymphedema. The surgical removal of a tumor and affected lymph nodes and lymph vessels leads in about 25 % of the operations to a blockage of the lymph fluid and hence to lymphedema. Other operations, in which it is found necessary to remove the lymph node are, for example, skin cancer surgery ( removal melanoma ) , gynecological cancers , bladder or colon cancer , and prostate, or testicular cancer. Each operation can be a basis for lymphedema in the future, sometimes decades later on.
Radiotherapy which is used for the treatment of various cancers , and some AIDS -related diseases , may damage healthy lymph nodes through the formation of scar tissue . This scar tissue may block the normal drainage of the lymph fluid . Lymphedema can also occur as a result of an infection or a serious injury.
Lymphedema is quite common. According to the WHO (World Health Organization) about 250 million people are affected by lymphedema worldwide. Others estimate that 1 in 25 people has to deal with a form of lymphedema in his life . The M.D.Anderson Hospital in Houston Texas – USA , reports that about 15% of all women with breast cancer develop lymphedema during their lives .