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What is Lymphedema?

If you are at risk for or already have lymphedema, you can watch for signs and take steps to avoid or control the condition.

Lymphedema is swelling of a body part – most commonly an arm or leg – caused by excess lymph fluid collecting in body tissues. The condition results when lymph vessels or nodes are missing, damaged or removed.

This disrupts the lymphatic system. It undermines its ability to properly drain fluid as part of the immune system.

The swelling most commonly affects one arm or leg, but occasionally affects both arms or legs. Certain people may even experience swelling in the chest, or head.

Who is at risk?

Lymphedema most commonly occurs after surgery to remove lymph nodes in the armpit in breast cancerpatients or lymph nodes in the groin to treat other types of cancer.

Radiation therapy to treat breast and other cancers also sometimes damages the lymphatic system and limits normal fluid drainage.

Patients who have damaged or missing lymph nodes and who are overweight also are more at risk for the condition.

“While breast cancer patients represent the population segment at highest risk for developing lymphedema, it can also occur due to injuries, or a congenital issue with the formation of lymphatic circulation,” says plastic surgeon Graham Schwarz, MD.

An infectious parasite can cause the condition in people living in certain areas of the world. This is very rare in developed countries, however.

How to cope with lymphedema

Functional limitations — decreased mobility and a bulky limb — can affect your work and your ability to participate in favorite activities.

“Patients may experience frustration because they’re not able to utilize th