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Lymphedema is the blockage of the body's lymph nodes, which causes lymphatic fluid to build up and swell a portion of the body. Lymph vessels collect fluid, including protein, water, fats and other waste products from throughout the body and carry it to the lymph nodes. The lymph nodes filter out waste and recirculate lymphatic fluid through the body.

Causes of Lymphedema

Risk factors for lymphedema include:

lymphedema compared to normal lymphatics
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  • Surgery or radiation treatment for certain cancers, especially breast and testicular cancer
  • Skin infections
  • Infections from parasites
  • Trauma
  • Tumors
  • Burns
  • Being born without lymph nodes (inherited lymphedema)

Symptoms of Lymphedema

You may have lymphedema if you experience:

  • Swelling, aching, weakness, redness, heaviness or tightness in the arms or legs
  • Reduced flexibility in the wrist or ankle
  • Tight-fitting rings or shoes

Diagnosis & Treatment at UVA

At UVA, we can diagnose you by using these tests:

  • Ultrasound
  • Computed tomography (CT) scan
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
  • Lymphoscintigraphy

Compression stockings may ease your symptoms and keep the lymph fluid flowing. Your doctor may design an exercise program for you to help improve the movement of lymph fluid. He or she may also recommend massage therapy to improve the moment of lymph fluid, called manual lymph drainage.

Surgery is rarely used to treat lymphedema. Options may include:

  • Removal of abnormal lymph tissue
  • Liposuction
  • Transplant of normal lymph tissues to replace abnormal lymph tissue.

Content was created using EBSCO’s Health Library. Edits to original content made by Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia. This information is not a substitute for professional medical advice.