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. Lymphedema most commonly presents in a limb  (arm/hand or leg/foot), but it can also be present in the breast, trunk, genitals, or head and neck.

Who develops lymphedema and why?

Lymphedema can affect all persons and 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 trauma, 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.

Cancer-related lymphedema is the most common reason for occurrence of lymphedema in North America. Individuals with 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 a lymphatic system, the greater the risk for development of lymphedema.

Secondary lymphedema may also develop unrelated to  cancer, second to trauma and/or damage to the lymphatic system. Severe trauma, recurring infections, venous disease and lymphatic insufficiency, limited mobility, and morbid obesity are all considered risk factors for occurrence of lymphedema.

Filariasis is a severe type of secondary lymphedema resulting from insect bites; filariasis  while rare in North America, is more prevalent 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, it is estimated that 1 million Canadians are impacted by lymphedema. Click here for an article by two leading Canadian lymphedema experts discussing the rising prevalence of lymphedema in Canada.

Hope for the future

Research is helping to better explain and treat lymphedema. Progress in the awareness, understanding and diagnostics for lymphedema (including advanced imaging, new surgical techniques, and potential medications)  , give hope for continued improvement in detection, treatment and management of lymphedema.