Symptoms, Doctors, Treatments, Research & More

Condition 101

What is the definition of Lymphedema?

Lymphatic obstruction is a blockage of the lymph vessels that drain fluid from tissues throughout the body and allow immune cells to travel where they are needed. Lymphatic obstruction may cause lymphedema, which means swelling due to a blockage of the lymph passages.

What are the alternative names for Lymphedema?


What are the causes for Lymphedema?

The most common reason for lymphatic obstruction is the removal or enlargement of the lymph nodes.

Other causes of lymphatic obstruction include:

  • Infections with parasites, such as filariasis
  • Injury
  • Radiation therapy
  • Skin infections, such as cellulitis (more common in obese people)
  • Surgery
  • Tumors

A common cause of lymphedema is removal of the breast (mastectomy) and underarm lymph tissue for breast cancer treatment. This causes lymphedema of the arm in some people, because the lymphatic drainage of the arm passes through the armpit (axilla).

Rare forms of lymphedema that are present from birth (congenital) may result from problems in the development of the lymphatic vessels.

What are the symptoms for Lymphedema?

The main symptom is persistent (chronic) swelling, usually of the arm or leg.

What are the current treatments for Lymphedema?

Treatment for lymphedema includes:

  • Compression (usually with wrapping in bandages or stockings)
  • Manual lymph drainage (MLD)
  • Range of motion or resistance exercises

Manual lymph drainage is a light massage therapy technique. During massage, the skin is moved in certain directions based on the structure of the lymphatic system. This helps the lymph fluid drain through the proper channels.

Treatment also includes skin care to prevent injuries, infection, and skin breakdown. Light exercise and movement programs may also be prescribed. Wearing compression garments on the affected area or using a pneumatic compression pump may be helpful. Your provider and physical therapist will decide which compression methods are best.

Surgery is used in some cases, but it has limited success. The surgeon must have a lot of experience with this type of procedure. You will still need physical therapy after surgery to reduce lymphedema.

Types of surgery include:

  • Liposuction
  • Removal of abnormal lymphatic tissue
  • Transplant of normal lymphatic tissues to areas with abnormal lymphatic drainage (less common)

In rare cases, surgery to bypass abnormal lymph tissue using vein grafts is done. These procedures are most effective for early lymphedema and should be performed by an experienced surgeon.

What is the outlook (prognosis) for Lymphedema?

Lymphedema is a chronic disease that usually requires lifelong management. In some cases, lymphedema improves with time. Some swelling is usually permanent.

What are the possible complications for Lymphedema?

In addition to swelling, the most common complications include:

  • Chronic wounds and ulcers
  • Skin breakdown
  • Cancer of the lymph tissue (rare)

When should I contact a medical professional for Lymphedema?

See your provider if you have swelling of your arms, legs, or lymph nodes that does not respond to treatment or go away.

How do I prevent Lymphedema?

Most surgeons now use a technique called sentinel lymph node sampling to reduce your risk for lymphedema after breast cancer surgery. However, this technique is not always appropriate or effective.



Feldman JL, Jackson KA, Armer JM. Lymphedema risk reduction and management. In: Cheng MH, Chang DW, Patel KM, eds. Principles and Practice of Lymphedema Surgery. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2016:chap 9.

Rockson SG. Lymphedema: evaluation and decision making. In: Sidawy AN, Perler BA, eds. Rutherford's Vascular Surgery and Endovascular Therapy. 9th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2019:chap 168.

Latest Research

Latest Advance
  • Condition: Early Cervical Adenocarcinoma
  • Journal: Zhonghua fu chan ke za zhi
  • Treatment Used: Laparoscopic Radical Hysterectomy
  • Number of Patients: 93
  • Published —
The study researched the safety and effectiveness of laparoscopic radical hysterectomy for patients with early cervical adenocarcinoma.
Latest Advance
  • Condition: Breast Cancer (BC) in Canadian Women
  • Journal: British journal of nursing (Mark Allen Publishing)
  • Treatment Used: Vascular Access Devices
  • Number of Patients: 0
  • Published —
This article reconsiders vascular access device options for Canadian women with breast cancer (BC).

Clinical Trials

Clinical Trial
  • Status: Not yet recruiting
  • Study Type: Procedure
  • Participants: 20
  • Start Date: April 1, 2021
Efficacy of Lymphovenous Bypass in the Treatment of Extremity Lymphedema
Clinical Trial
  • Status: Not yet recruiting
  • Participants: 28
  • Start Date: January 2021
Reverse Axillary Mapping as a Lymphedema Prevention Strategy in Breast Radiation Treatment Planning