It’s important to take care of your arms and legs. You don’t realize how important and useful they are until something goes wrong with them. Have you ever seen a person who has swelling legs or arms? This could be a case of lymphedema. Lymphedema occurs when fluids build up in the soft tissues because the lymph vessels are blocked, damaged, or removed by surgery. And when it is serious, infections can occur and may damage tissue around the lymph.
Lymph is the thin, clear fluid that circulates in the body to get rid of wastes, bacteria, and other substances from tissues. Edema is the buildup of excess fluid. So swelling legs and arms occur when too much lymph is collected in any area of the body.
What are the symptoms?
The symptoms of lymphedema may include
- swelling legs or arms
- a full or heavy feeling in an arm or leg
- a tight feeling in the skin
- difficulty in moving a joint in the arm or leg
- thickening of the skin (with or without skin changes such as blisters or warts)
- a feeling of tightness (when wearing clothing, shoes, bracelets, watches, or rings)
- itching of the legs or toes, a burning feeling in the legs
- hard time sleeping
- loss of hair
Types of lymphedema
Primary lymphedema is associated with genetic abnormalities in the lymphatic system. Secondary lymphedema is caused by damage to the lymphatic system mainly after going through surgery, trauma, radiation, or an infection. This is common for patients that are going through cancer treatments.
For treating breast cancer, for example, many surgeries will have at least two or three lymph nodes removed from under the arm. Sometimes, radiation is also needed as part of the treatment. Both surgery and radiation can cut off or damage some of the nodes and vessels through which lymph moves. Over time, the flow of lymph can overwhelm the remaining pathways, which will result in lymphedema due to the backup of fluid into the body’s tissues.
How to prevent, manage and treat it
Preventive, management and treatment measures include maintaining clean skin and nails to prevent infection (use cream or lotion to keep the skin moist, treat small cuts or breaks in the skin with an antibacterial ointment, avoiding needle sticks of any type into the limb with lymphedema including blood tests and shots, using a thimble for sewing, using sunscreen and wearing slippers outside).
Keep body fluids moving
You should also keep body fluids moving, especially through an affected limb or in areas where lymphedema may develop. To keep these fluid moving, do not cross legs while sitting, change your sitting position at least every 30 minutes, wear only loose jewelry and clothes without tight bands or elastic, do not carry handbags on the arm with lymphedema, do not use a blood pressure cuff on the arm with lymphedema, and do not use elastic bandages or stockings with tight bands.
Limbs should be raised higher than the heart when possible
The limb with lymphedema should also be raised higher than the heart when possible, and do not swing the limb quickly in circles or let the limb hang down, and do not apply heat to the limb. These can all make blood and fluid collect in the lower part of the arm or leg.
For exercising (light exercise and aerobic exercise help the lymph vessels move lymph out of the affected limb and decrease swelling), you should talk to your doctor before doing it. It is important to wear a pressure garment during all exercise if lymphedema has developed.
Treatments for lymphedema will depend on the severity of the condition. Treatments could be in the form of using sleeves, bandages, and pumps that can help lymph flow out of the arm, hand, trunk, or other body part affected by lymphedema. Others include skin protection and exercise and losing weight. You should contact your doctor at the first sign of lymphedema.