Normal Swelling or Serious Risk?

Lymphedema is painful swelling in the arms or legs most common after cancer surgery or radiation of the head, neck, breast and legs. An estimated 3-5 million Americans suffer from lymphedema, including many that are undiagnosed or undertreated. When the lymphatic system is compromised -- or lymph nodes removed completely -- fluid can’t drain properly and builds up.

But, it’s not limited to cancer. Lymphedema can also occur after severe trauma, kidney disease, orthopedic surgery, stroke, or due to vein issues. It can be either primary or secondary. Lymphedema caused by cancer and other conditions is considered secondary, and is most common. While rare, lymphedema can result from a congenital defect of the lymphatic system. This is considered primary lymphedema.

Cancer patients are at a high risk for developing lymphedema, and many times it may not occur until months or even years after treatment. In fact, 40% of breast cancer patients will develop lymphedema within five years of surgery. In 2019, more than 331,000 new cases of breast cancer are expected to be diagnosed in women in the U.S. If you do the math, you can see just how widespread lymphedema is.

If you’ve been diagnosed with cancer, you should discuss lymphedema prevention with your doctors. They can tell you what to be on the lookout for and when you may need to be referred for lymphedema treatment. In addition to cancer as a risk factor, age, obesity, and rheumatoid or psoriatic arthritis can also play a part in lymphedema.

When lymphedema goes untreated, it can cause long-term physical, psychological and social challenges. There is no cure, but symptoms can be treated effectively with a combination of physical and occupational therapy, manual massage, compression bandages and garments, exercise, skin care and pump therapy.

After getting the proper treatment, patients with lymphedema will start to feel more like themselves and can get back to life as they know it. Plus, their improved immune systems get a much-needed boost to help fight future issues. With better skin integrity, there’s a decreased risk of infection, and less swelling means less stress to the heart. Better mobility allows patients to be more active, which is also great for heart health.


Christine Perkins, Occupational Therapist
Baton Rouge General Lymphedema Clinic

Phone: (225) 763-4050

March 19, 2019