Lymphedema, also known as lymphatic obstruction, is a blockage of the lymph vessels that drain fluid from tissues throughout the body and allocate immune cells to pass through where they are needed. The lymphatic system returns interstitial fluid to the thoracic duct and then the bloodstream, where it is then re-dispersed back into the tissues.

Lymphedema may be hereditary or the result of an injury to the lymphatic vessels. It is often seen after lymph node dissection, surgery and radiation therapy when damage to the lymphatic system is caused during the treatment of cancer, most commonly breast cancer. Many patients with cancer do not develop conditions for months or years after the therapy has completed.

Lymphedema is also linked with accidents, diseases or problems that may hinder the lymphatic system from functioning optimally. In tropical regions, a frequent cause of secondary lymphedema is filariasis, a parasitic infection.

Tissues with lymphedema are at risk of infection. Symptoms can include severe fatigue, a heavy swollen limb, localized fluid accumulation in other body areas such as the head or neck, discoloration of the skin overlying the lymphedema, and ultimately deformity (elephantiasis).

While there is no current cure for lymphedema, there are several ways to combat the condition. Light exercises that encourage movement of the lymph fluid,  manual lymph drainage massages, and compression garments are remedies that are often tried initially. Excellent results have been seen after the use of pneumatic compression therapy pumps that reduce swelling and increase mobility for patients battling  lymphedema.

Sources: National Lymphedema Network, American Cancer Society

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