(Primary Lymphedema; Secondary Lymphedema)
by Patricia Griffin Kellicker, BSN
Lymphedema is a build up of fluid in the lymph system. This system is made of organs, vessels, nodes, and fluids. It is part of the immune system and balances fluids in the tissue.
The fluid build up leads to swelling in the area. It is most common in the arms and legs. It can spread to the core and head. Swelling may be mild to severe. It can dramatically increases the size of the limb. It can also cause color changes to the skin.
Primary lymphedema is caused by defects of the nodes or vessels. It is due to a birth defect or change in genes. Parts may be missing or not work as they should. Conditions with primary lymphedema include:
Secondary lymphedema is caused by an injury or illness that blocks the flow of fluid. Examples include:
Lymphedema is more common in older adults.
Factors that may increase the chances of lymphedema include:
Symptoms of lymphedema include:
Lymphedema can also lead to complications like:
The doctor will ask about any symptoms and past health. A physical exam will be done. The amount fo swelling and size of limb will be measured. The doctor may diagnose lymphedema based on the exam and past health.
More tests may be needed if the cause is unclear. Image tests may include:
Treatment will depend on the cause. Lymphedema will stop after treatment for some. Others will have a continued risk of lymphedema. Treatment may include different steps:
When lymphedema is present, it is important to reduce swelling. Too much swelling can cause complications. Options to treat swelling include the following:
Lifestyle habits can affect recovery and risk of future swelling. Steps may include:
A combo of treatments may lead to the best results. Different methods will be tried until the best method is found.
Surgery may be needed for severe lymphedema. It will unblock the lymph to reduce swelling.
Certain conditions or treatment have a high risk of lymphedema. The medical care team will take steps to prevent lymphedema. Early treatment can make a big difference.
A strength and activity program in recovery may help prevent lymphedema after removing lymph nodes.
National Cancer Institute
National Lymphedema Network
Canadian Cancer Society
Lymphedema Association of Quebec
Lymphedema. Society for Vascular Surgery website. Available at: https://vascular.org/patient-resources/vascular-conditions/lymphedema. Accessed March 26, 2018.
Lymphedema—approach to the patient. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at: http://www.dynamed... . Updated October 18, 2017. Accessed March 26, 2018.
Patient Education: Preventing Lymphedema. EBSCO Nursing Reference Center website. Available at:
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Updated September 29, 2017. Accessed March 26, 2018.
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Torres Lacomba M, Yuste Sánchez MJ, Zapico Goñi A, et al. Effectiveness of early physiotherapy to prevent lymphoedema after surgery for breast cancer: randomised, single blinded, clinical trial. BMJ. 2010;340:b5396.
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Last reviewed March 2018 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Marcin Chwistek, MD
Last Updated: 1/7/2018
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