How/Why does Lymphedema develop? Lymphedema can develop when lymphatic vessels are missing or impaired (primary), or when lymph vessels are damaged or lymph nodes removed (secondary). When the impairment is so great that the lymphatic fluid exceeds the lymphatic transport capacity, an abnormal amount of protein-rich fluid collects in the tissues of the affected area.
It most often develops in one arm or leg, but may present in both arm and both legs. It may also occur in the hands, feet, chest, back, neck, face, abdomen, and genitals. Primary Lymphedema, which can affect from one to as many as four limbs and/or other parts of the body, can be present at birth, develop at the onset of puberty or in adulthood, all from unknown causes, or associated with vascular anomalies.
Secondary lymphedema, or acquired lymphedema, can develop as a result of surgery, radiation, infection or trauma. Specific surgeries, such as surgery for melanoma or breast, gynecological, head or neck, prostate or testicular, bladder or colon cancer, currently require removal of lymph nodes. If lymph nodes are removed, there is always a risk of developing lymphedema.
The first obvious sign of lymphedema is swelling characterized by "pitting". This is recognizable when the skin is depressed for a few seconds and the indentation does not immediately disappear. Other symptoms may include a tightness or heaviness in the affected area or changes in the texture of the skin. You may even notice that jewelry and clothing feel tighter.
If your lymphatic system is compromised, this area of the body will have to work much harder to circulate fluid. When it is unable to keep up, swelling and fluid build-up are likely to develop. Therefore, lymphatic vessels in the compromised are need external support such as wearing compression garments to assist lymphatic drainage.