There are two general types of lymphedema:
Primary Lymphedema usually appears without obvious cause or after a minor traumatic event or an infection. It can happen at any age, but is due to a congenital abnormality, usually involving malformed or missing lymph vessels. This condition may be familial.
Secondary Lymphedema is an acquired condition resulting from the loss or obstruction of previously normal lymph pathways. It often occurs after a surgical procedure where lymph notes or lymph vessels have been removed or damaged. Surgery and/or radiation for cancer treatment is one of the most common causes. People who have had treatment for breast cancer, melanomas, prostate cancer, ovarian, cervical, or lymphomas are all at risk, although the swelling may not appear until months or even years later. The rate of progression of lymphedema varies with temperature, humidity, activities and the number of infections or complications.
In the case of arm lymphedema developing after axillary surgery and/of radiation therapy the lymphedema is often more distressing to the person than the mastectomy or lumpectomy, because the person must deal with lymphedema and it complications for life.
In the legs, lymphedema is more distressing because people must deal with a variety of special problems such as a different shoe size for each foot, difficulty walking, excessive fatigue from heavy lower extremities, back pain, diminished agility, feeling forced into a sedentary lifestyle.