What Can Cause Lymphedema?
Lymphedema can be caused by several factors, making it difficult to determine what resulted in your diagnosis. Your body has a network of vessels and lymph nodes that are used to carry lymphatic fluid from the body’s tissues back to the central circulation. The lymph nodes work to filter out bacteria, toxins, and cellular waste. When lymphatic nodes or vessels are damaged, the flow is impaired, and the fluid accumulates.
One of the most common causes of lymphedema is surgery to remove a cancerous tumor and/or lymph node removal to prevent cancer spread. Anyone who has this type of surgery is at risk for developing lymphedema due to this insult or impairment to the lymphatic system. The patient may develop swelling after surgery that does not resolve, or may develop swelling months or even years later. However, it’s important to note that this doesn’t always result in lymphedema, so you may not experience lymphedema as a result of cancer-related surgery.
Radiation treatment is another common form of cancer treatment and can cause damage to both your lymph nodes and vessels, resulting in scarring and inflammation. This damage can impair the lymphatic flow, resulting in lymphedema.
Vascular disease is another common cause of lymphedema, mostly affecting the lower extremities, including the feet, ankles, and lower legs. Common vascular conditions, such as chronic venous insufficiency, vasculitis, and deep vein thrombosis, can disrupt the natural drainage of lymphatic fluid. As a result, swelling of the lower extremities can occur, along with pain and discomfort.
Obesity can also cause lymphedema. When there is excess adipose tissue (fat), it can place pressure on your body’s lymphatic nodes and vessels. In turn, this can decrease or prevent lymphatic draining, which can result in swelling. By maintaining a healthy weight, you can reduce and prevent lymphedema symptoms.
An abnormality in the formation of the lymphatic system, such as malfunctioning or missing lymph nodes or vessels, can also lead to lymphedema. These hereditary conditions can be present at birth, or infancy, or appear around the time of puberty, or later in adulthood. This type of lymphedema is called primary lymphedema. Swelling can appear in one or more limbs, the face, abdomen, or genitals.
Lastly, trauma can cause lymphedema. Your lymphatic system is close to your skin’s surface, and trauma, such as a crushing injury, car accident, or burn, can cause damage to your lymphatic vessels and nodes, which can lead to lymphedema and swelling.