Lymphedema (Leg Swelling)

Lymphedema refers to swelling that generally occurs in your arms or legs. It is most often caused by the removal of or damage to your lymph nodes during cancer treatment.

It occurs as a result of a blockage in your lymphatic system. The blockage stops lymph fluid from draining effectively, and the fluid buildup leads to swelling.

While there is presently no cure for lymphedema, it can be managed with early diagnosis and diligent treatment of your affected limb.

Do I Have Lymphedema?

Lymphedema signs and symptoms include:

  • Swelling of part or all of your arm or leg, including fingers or toes
  • Restricted movement
  • A feeling of heaviness or tightness
  • Recurring infections
  • Aching or pain
  • Hardening of the skin (fibrosis)

The swelling caused by lymphedema ranges from mild, hardly noticeable changes in the size of your arm or leg to extreme changes that make the limb hard to use. Lymphedema caused by cancer treatment may not occur until months or years after treatment.

When Should I See a Doctor?

Make an appointment if you notice persistent swelling in your arm or leg.

If you already have the diagnosis of lymphedema of a limb, see your doctor if there is a sudden dramatic increase in the size of the involved limb, as it may suggest a new process is occurring.

Risk factors

Factors that may increase your risk of developing lymphedema after cancer, from cancer treatment or from other causes include:

  • Old age
  • Rheumatoid or psoriatic arthritis
  • Excess weight or obesity

Complications

Lymphedema in your arm or leg can lead to serious complications if left untreated. These include infections like cellulitis and lymphangitis, and lymphangiosarcoma, a rare from of cancer.

Prevention

Try these conservative measures to reduce the risk of lymphedema:

  • Elevate your arm or leg. Keep your affected limb above your heart whenever you can.
  • Rest your affected limb during recovery. Avoid taxing activity until you finish recovering.
  • Protect your arm or leg. Scrapes and cuts can invite infection.
  • Keep your arm or leg clean. Make hygiene and showers a priority.
  • Avoid heat on your arm or leg. Don’t apply heat or ice to your affected limb.
  • Avoid tight clothing. Avoid anything that could constrict your affected limb.

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