Lymphedema is the swelling of a human body part caused by an abnormal accumulation of fluid, proteins, and cellular waste in the tissues under the skin. It occurs when there is a problem in the lymphatic system:
- The failure of lymph vessels to develop properly
- Damage to lymph vessels by trauma, surgery, or infection
- Removal or destruction of lymph nodes, usually during treatment of cancer
Lymphedema can be a painful and disfiguring condition. It can lead to decreased mobility, repeated episodes of infections (cellulitis, erysipelas, lymphagitis), and mental depression. It can require constant and chronic medical care and expense. Severe cases involve thickening of the skin, hardening of the tissues (fibrosis), leaking of fluid, massive swelling and skin changes such as warty growths. The extreme version of lymphedema is called elephantiasis when the limb becomes enormous and distorted, with drastic changes in the skin and tissue. Even when the degree of lymphedema is relatively mild, it can make wearing regular clothes more difficult, limit activities, and increase the risk for infections. Because lymphedema is a chronic progressive condition, even mild cases can eventually escalate and have serious consequences if not properly treated.