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What do I need to know about lymphedema?

What is lymphedema?

Lymphedema presents as swelling in the body commonly in the arms or legs, but can also be other parts of the body such as breast, trunk, face, neck and genital area.

It is an abnormal accumulation of lymph, a clear protein rich fluid, in the body’s tissue spaces known as interstitial tissue due to the disruption of the body’s lymphatic system.

The lymphatic system is an extensive network of lymph vessels that is closely connected to our blood vessels system. It is also an important part of our immune system. This system drains lymph from tissues and carries it into the blood system.

Why lymphedema develops?

Lymphedema usually develops when the lymphatic flow is obstructed or disrupted due to the following reasons:

- lymph vessels are damaged due to injury, surgery or radiation involving the lymph nodes

- lymph vessels are being compressed and occluded by a tumour in the body

Who are at risk of developing lymphedema?

Persons who:

• Had undergone surgery which involved removal of lymph nodes

E.g. arm pit, neck or pelvic lymph nodes dissection

• Had radiation therapy to groin, arm pit, or neck

• Have scarring from extensive traumatic wound or surgery on the body or limb.

• Had any conditions or diseases which may or have affected the lymph nodes in the body.

E.g. Cancer, Herpes Zoster, etc

• Have conditions related to incompetent veins or insufficient lymph vessels

E.g. Chronic Venous Insufficiency and Lymphatic Insufficiency

How do I know if I have lymphedema?

Tight watch or bracelet. A sign of swelling.

If you were told or you think you are at risk of having lymphedema, do watch out for any of the following signs and symptoms:

• Swelling on affected limb or any part of the body

• Feeling of discomfort, aches, heaviness, tightness, tingling or numbness

• Pain if swelling is severe or when there is presence of skin infection

• Skin changes - skin tight, taut, shiny, thick or redness if infected

• Skin on affected limb is warm to touch

• Difficulty getting clothes to fit the affected limb

• Jewellery or watches feel tight

• Restricted function of the affected limb

What should I do if I think I have lymphedema?

Do consult your doctor, surgeon or physiotherapist for further assessment. Early identification and treatment can help to reverse the condition, if mild, or prevent worsening. If left untreated, lymphedema may worsen as it is progressive in nature.


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