Lymphedema is the chronic swelling or feeling of tightness in the arm or hand due to an accumulation of lymphatic fluid in the soft tissue of the arm. The condition occurs when lymph vessels, which normally carry excess fluid out of the limbs and back into central circulation, have had their flow interrupted. Axillary (underarm) lymph node removal is commonly performed on breast cancer patients to stage or treat their cancer. However, between 15% and 20% of breast cancer patients who undergo axillary lymph node removal develop lymphedema. According to the American Cancer Society, of the two million breast cancer survivors in the U.S., approximately 400,000 must cope with lymphedema on a daily basis.
Lymphedema of Foot and Leg also may occur. It may also be caused by chronic infection, usually involving the legs. Less commonly, lymphedema is primary (i.e., due to the genetic make-up). Children with primary lymphedema may be born with it (congenital lymphedema) or it may become evident in their teens (lymphedema praecox) or in adulthood (lymphedema tarda).
Chronic lymphedema may result in minor swelling and discomfort. Occasionally it leads to a grave disability and disfigurement. Lymphedema may be precipitated, or made worse, by a skin infection. Skin infections can be difficult to treat in someone with pre-existing lymphedema.