A chronic condition that can impact quality of life
Expert Heart & Vascular Care
Getting the care you need starts with seeing one of our heart or vascular specialists.
The lymph vessels drain toxins and other waste products from your body’s tissues. When these vessels are damaged, lymph fluid accumulates in the tissues of the arm or leg and cause severe swelling, known as lymphedema.
Our team works with other specialties within MedStar Health to develop a treatment plan specific to each patient. Historically, treatment options focused on helping people deal with the symptoms of the condition, not eliminating the cause. But MedStar Plastic Surgery physicians are some of the only ones on the East Coast who offer advanced surgeries such as lymph node transfer and lymphovenous bypass to treat the root cause and help people return to their daily activities.
What are the causes and symptoms of lymphedema?
Lymphedema usually is caused by removal of or damage to the lymph nodes. This is known as secondary lymphedema and can be the result of cancer treatment (surgery or radiation), infection or injury. About 20 percent of patients diagnosed with breast cancer will develop lymphedema.
Less common is primary lymphedema, a condition you’re born with that is caused by problems with the development of lymph vessels.
Lymphedema presents as swelling in the affected area, usually in the arms or feet. If it occurs after surgery or radiation for cancer, it will appear on the same side as where the cancer was treated.
You also may experience:
- Feeling like the arm or leg is tight or heavy
- Pain or redness
- Thickened skin
- Tighter-fitting shirts, pants, watches or rings
If advanced, the swelling caused by lymphedema may be painful or disfiguring and interfere with daily activities. Patients with lymphedema also may develop skin infections such as cellulitis and lymphangitis.
Your lymphedema treatment plan will depend on the cause and severity of the condition. Your doctor may prescribe medication or refer you to a physical or occupational therapist who specializes in managing lymphedema. Therapies to reduce swelling and control pain may include using compression garments, exercises, special massage techniques or mechanical pumping devices.
If your condition is severe, they may recommend more advanced treatments such as lymph node transfer and lymphovenous bypass.