A Disease Impacting Millions, known by few
Lymphedema [lim-fa-dee-mah] is a chronic condition where a protein rich fluid called lymph or lymphatic fluid collects in the tissues just below the skin causing swelling. Your lymphatic system runs throughout your body and is like a plumbing system for your lymph fluid.
When this system does not work properly, whether it was poorly developed from birth, or damaged from surgery, radiation, or a trauma, your body cannot effectively transport lymph fluid. When transport is interrupted and lymph fluid cannot drain properly, it causes swelling where the drainage is disrupted. This swelling can be in any part of the body, most often in the arms and legs, but also the breast or chest wall, head and neck, or genitals.
When the fluid remains stagnant in the tissue, the body recognizes this excess protein as “foreign” and wants to “wall off” this area to protect it. This can cause a state of inflammation, which then causes fibrosis (scar tissue). That fibrosis can feel hard and tight, and makes it more difficult for the fluid to move out of the area. It also puts patients at higher risk of wounds healing slowly and infections called cellulitis or lymphangitis. (You can read more about infections below.)