What is lymphedema?

Lymphedema (lim-fa-DEE-ma):
chronic swelling (edema) caused by a buildup of fluid (lymph).

Lymphedema is a lifelong condition caused by a buildup of lymph fluid. This happens when the lymphatic system is either faulty or damaged and cannot function as normal. It leads to chronic (long-lasting) swelling in the tissues where the lymph flow is blocked. Most often the swelling is in an arm or leg, but it can also be in the breast, trunk, genitals or head and neck.

Who develops lymphedema and why?

Lymphedema affects men, women and children of all ages.

Primary lymphedema occurs when a person is born with a faulty lymphatic system. Signs of lymphedema may be present from birth or develop during puberty or later in life. The later development may be due to changes in hormones or body weight that put more of a burden on the lymphatic system.

Primary lymphedema is more common in women than men and occurs mainly in the legs.

Secondary lymphedema occurs when a person’s lymphatic system is damaged by surgery, radiation therapy or severe injury (e.g. a burn or skin infection). It can develop a short time after the damage occurs or many years later.

People who are treated for cancer (e.g. breast, prostate, gynecological, melanoma, lymphoma or other cancers) have a lifelong risk for lymphedema if they have had lymph nodes or vessels removed or damaged during treatment. The more damage there is to your lymphatic system, the higher your risk for lymphedema.

Secondary lymphedema may also develop due to surgery not related to cancer and other causes such as severe trauma, recurring infections, venous disease and lymphatic insufficiency related to those with disabilities and who are chair bound, plus those who are morbidly obese.

Filariasis (a severe type of lymphedema) results from insect bites in certain tropical countries. For more information on filariasis, see http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs102/en/.

How many people are affected in Canada?

Prevalence estimates should be viewed as representing ranges rather than precise figures. However, we probably have 1 million Canadians impacted. Click here for an article by two leading Canadian lymphedema experts discussing the rising prevalence of lymphedema in Canada.

Prevalence chart

 

 

Hope for the future

Research is helping us better understand lymphedema. Advances in diagnostic imaging, surgical techniques, possible drugs, and our ability to predict lymphedema, give us hope that how we detect, treat and manage it in the future will improve greatly.