Lymphedema Primer

Disclaimer: Please consult your doctor or therapist for specific treatments and diagnosis for your particular situation.

What is Lymphedema?

  • Lymphedema is a condition of localized fluid retention and tissue swelling caused by a compromised lymphatic system and comes in two types: Primary and Secondary.

  • The Lymphatic system helps the blood system remove waste and deliver white blood cells to the body.

  • If you have Lymphedema it means your body doesn’t remove that waste properly. Those with the condition may have too few lymph nodes or a blockage or malfunction with the lymphatic system. Either way, patients with this condition develop swelling in one or more of their extremities. Mild cases are inconvenient. Extreme cases can be more debilitating. Elephantiasis is an extreme case of lymphedema.

Why is the Lymphatic System so important?

  • The Lymphatic system works with our body's blood system. Our Blood circulatory system (blood, veins and heart) delivers "food" for muscles, organs, and tissues and then removes 90% of the body's waste.

  • The remaining 10% of the waste is removed by the Lymphatic system as it delivers other entities like white blood cells and antibodies which help the body fight off infection.

  • Without a working lymphatic system the human body could not survive. Instead of depending on an organ like the heart to push fluid through the body, the lymphatic system relies on the skin and your natural movement to push fluid through its system.

How do you know if you or others have it?

  • Some people are born with underdeveloped or impaired lymphatic systems (called Primary Lymphedema) . You can develop this condition after a trauma such as from cancer treatments, surgery or infections (called Secondary Lymphedema).

  • Some simple early signs of Lymphedema include a heavy feeling in a limb, unexplained swelling in a limb not associated with inquiry. Initially that swelling could be non-persistent, that is - it could increase during the day and lessen at night. Pitting occurs in the early stages of lymphedema when the tissues are still soft. After lymphedema has been present for a while the tissues begin to harden and pitting no longer occurs.

  • The swelling in limbs is usually not painful and is not treatable with diuretic drugs – used mostly for diabetic swelling.

  • The major symptoms are persistent swelling and recurrent infections in the limbs. In advanced stages, the swelling doesn't go up and down but usually still not painful. The deep tissue infections, sometimes referred as cellulitis, are quite painful and can be dangerous.

What can you do about it?

  • Get Treatment - don’t suffer in silence: There are well-known treatments to manage this condition.

    • See your Doctor or Vascular Specialist for a diagnosis and referral to a certified therapist.

    • There is no known cure for Lymphedema. Those infected with this will need to continue active management of the condition. This means sufferers must work daily to keep the condition in check.

  • Common treatments are the following:

    • Manual Lymph Drainage (MLD) Therapy

    • Bandages or wrapping the limbs

    • Skin and/or foot care, to prevent skin breaks and infections

    • Use of compression pumps

    • Pool & Exercise Therapy

  • Manual Lymph Drainage (MLD) Therapy is the most effective and a well-established treatment for the condition. There are certified therapists trained to perform it.

  • Proper Skin Care is important for Lymphedema sufferers. Skin on the limbs should be cleaned regularly to avoid skin breaks and prevent infections.

  • Get Support from your family, friends or other Lymphedema patients - Join a Support Group

Need more information?

  • You can review the National Lymphedema Network website,, for more information, educational materials, and position papers on how to live with Lymphedema.

  • One of the best ways to get information is to join a Support Group. There you can get information from local doctors, therapists, and patients. You view a list of Support local to your area from the National Lymphedema Network website.