Lymphedema is a condition where excess fluid builds up in the arms or legs, causing swelling. Fluids in the body circulate through a large maze-like network of small vessels to return to the circulatory system and be excreted. Because the vessels are so small, they can be easily damaged or clogged.
A small number of people who lack lymph vessels have primary lymphedema. For most people with lymphedema, it is called secondary, because it is caused by other medical conditions. Some conditions that contribute to lymphedema are obesity, lack of mobility, previous surgery, especially breast surgery, burns or injuries, and previous radiation therapy.
Symptoms of lymphedema can be subtle at first. Occasional swelling that is slow to resolve, tight shoes, stockings or jewelry are often noticed early. When the swollen are is pressed, the depression mat remain for a few minutes or longer. This is called “pitting” edema. If lymphedema becomes chronic, persistent swelling accompanied by itching, hardened skin, and possibly infection can occur.
For most patients, the diagnosis of lymphedema can be made quickly simply by a doctor’s observation. If there is any question about the diagnosis, several tests are available. Your doctor may order a special examination called a Duplex Ultrasound. This test can show the lymph nodes and measure the speed of the fluid traveling through the vessels. Another test used to diagnose lymphedema is called lymphoscintigraphy. An injection of a radionuclide into the area farthest way from the heart allows a special cameras to detect where the lymph fluid flows, and how fast.If you suspect you might have lymphedema, it important to see a doctor for early diagnosis and lympedema treatment. Fortunately, the earlier treatment begins, the less chance there is of chronic, irreversible edema developing
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