Symptoms and Signs of Lymphedema

Medical Author:
Medically Reviewed on 3/11/2019

Doctor's Notes on Lymphedema

Lymphedema is defined as swelling in one or more of the arms or legs due to damage or inadequate function of the lymphatic system to move lymph fluid. Signs and symptoms include swelling of one or more extremities that can range from mild to severe. The skin is firm and does not pit when the skin is compressed by a finger. The skin may become scaly, cracked and may resemble an orange peel; the skin can become tender and sore. Severe lymphedema can be disfiguring and limit limb mobility.

There are two general causes of lymphedema, primary (due to an intrinsic defect in the lymph system) and secondary (due to damage or destruction of an otherwise normal lymph system). Primary causes are uncommon and are genetically caused like congenital lymphedema or Milroy disease (genetic, sex-linked). Secondary causes are common and are caused by surgeries like breast cancer surgery, infections like filariasis, trauma, cancer cells that block lymphatics, burns, scars and radiation exposure.

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Kasper, D.L., et al., eds. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 19th Ed. United States: McGraw-Hill Education, 2015.