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Lymphedema – The Broken Lymphatic System

Lymphedema occurs when there is a blockage to the lymphatic vessels such that transportation of the lymphatic fluids is disrupted. Anything that tampers with the lymph nodes making them function below required standards will most certainly result into swelling of the limbs as the fluids build up. While it usually affects either one arm or leg, there are reported cases where it can affect both of the legs or both the arms.

Lymphedema can be either primary or secondary. In the former, the disease will develop on its own while in the latter case the disease develops as a result of another disease or its treatment.

Primary
Here the disease is more or less genetic and occurs when the patient’s lymphatic system does not develop fully. While it can be seen in men, majority of the sufferers whose cause is primary are women. Here are some conditions that will cause an under-developed lymphatic system:

• Meige’s disease where the lymphatic vessels form without the necessary valves to stop backward flow of the fluid in transport. This makes it difficult for proper drainage to take place causing the fluid to build up in the limbs. It is likely to affect children and teenagers though it can also sprout in the 20s and 30s.

• Milroy’s disease is a disorder where the lymph nodes form abnormally. Without the properly formed lymph nodes, the body has no way of removing the waste filled lymphatic fluid from your body.

• Late onset Lymphedema that will only develop later in life usually after the age of 35.

The exact cause of this form of the disease is yet to be discovered.

Secondary
Majority of the cases of the disease fall in this category and any condition or circumstance that causes damage to the lymphatic system is likely to result into ailment.

• Infection of the lymph nodes and or parasitic blockage of the lymphatic vessels. This cause is most common in tropical and sub tropical regions of the world and more likely seen in the developing world where sanitary conditions are less than favorable.

• Blockage of lymphatic vessels or compression of the lymph nodes by a cancerous tumor.

• Treatment of cancer by radiation therapy which tends to inflame and or damage the lymph nodes and vessels leaving them unusable. Survivors of cancer are also advised to wear their compression garments during flights to avoid swelling, which is said to result from decrease in the pressure inside the cabin.

• Any surgical procedure that results in the removal of some of the lymph nodes and vessels. This mainly occurs during breast cancer surgeries where lymph tissue gets butchered as doctors search for spread of the cancer. If the remaining tissue can not handle the fluid flow then the patient will develop the disease.

Symptoms exhibited by a patient
Symptoms of the disease may vary from one individual to another but the basic ones are swollen limbs either part or all of the said limb, a heaviness or tightness of the affected limb, aching and pain in the limb, reduced movement, never healing or constantly returning infections, and noticeably harder or thicker skin all on the affected limb/s.

The swelling ranges form hardly there (can not be noticed but rings seem tighter, etc) to severe where there is discoloration, infection, and inability to use the limb in question. For people who have had invasive surgeries in lymph related areas, swelling in the limbs that is ever increasing should be taken as a sign to visit a doctor immediately.

Possible complications
As a result of reduced defense system in the affected limb, it becomes more susceptible to infections and may continuously have one infection or another. Another problem can be the development of soft tissue cancer which occurs in the most severe cases of the disease especially if it is left untreated. Discoloration of the skin with blue, red or purple marks is warning sign enough that the cancer has started developing, it is however an extremely rare form of cancer.

There is no known cure for Lymphedema currently and treatments offered are meant to help reduce and control swelling, ease the pain and ensure usability of the limbs. Research from an NIH study in 2008 did show however that the treatment of the disease at it earliest possible stage after they had undergone breast cancer surgery stopped the disease from advancing further meaning that if caught early the progression of the disease can be halted.

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