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What is Lymphedema?


Lymphedema is a chronic disease caused by a buildup of lymph fluid. This happens when the lymphatic system is either faulty or damaged and cannot function as normal. It leads to chronic (long-lasting) swelling in the tissues where the lymph flow is blocked. Most often the swelling is in an arm or leg, but it can also be in the breast, trunk, genitals or head and neck.


Primary lymphedema occurs when a person is born with a faulty lymphatic system.  Signs may appear at birth, during puberty or later.


Secondary lymphedema occurs when the lymph system is damaged by surgery, radiation treatment, or severe injury (e.g. burn or skin infection).  Secondary lymphedema can occur immediately after surgery or weeks, months or even years later. Persons who are treated for cancer have a lifelong risk for lymphedema if they have had lymph nodes or vessels removed or damaged during treatment.

Stages of Lymphedema

There are four stages of lymphedema. The earlier lymphedema is recognized and diagnosed, the easier it is to successful treat it and to avoid many of the potential complications.



Ability of the lymph system to transport lymph fluid is reduced. No visible/palpable swelling.


(Reversible Lymphedema) Accumulation of protein rich fluid – swelling. Reduces with elevation. 


(Spontaneously Irreversible Lymphedema) Accumulation of protein rich fluid. Swelling becomes progressively worse. 


(Lymphostatic elephantiasis) Accumulation of protein rich fluid. Scarring and skin changes can occur.

Risk Factors

  • Surgery (including biopsies), and the number, size and location of lymph nodes removed or damaged
  • Serious infections that may include cellulitis
  • Deep wounds that might tear, cut or damage the lymphatic system
  • Radiation treatment, especially in areas that might contain “clusters” of lymph nodes 
  • Having chronic venous disease
  • Serious burns, even intense sunburn 
  • For primary lymphedema, a family history of chronic swelling of a limb
  • Being overweight and/or inactive add to these risk factors