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If you’ve developed unexpected swelling in your arms or legs, you may be suffering from lymphedema.

Lymphedema occurs when an abnormal amount of lymphatic fluid builds up in the arms or legs, causing swelling in the affected areas. 

Unfortunately, this condition has no permanent cure — but that doesn’t mean you can’t manage it. 

As vein specialists in the Milwaukee, Wisconsin, area, we have had the opportunity to help many patients suffering from lymphedema get the comfort and relief they need. In this article, we’ll provide you with comprehensive information about lymphedema, including its possible causes, symptoms, and effective management and treatment options.

What is Lymphedema?

Lymphedema is a medical condition characterized by swelling in different parts of the body due to a malfunctioning lymphatic system.

The lymphatic system is a network of tubes throughout the body that removes excess fluid, proteins, and waste from body tissues, returning them to the bloodstream. 

When this system fails to function properly, fluid can accumulate and cause swelling, most commonly in the arms and legs.

What are the symptoms of lymphedema?

Symptoms of lymphedema can vary depending on the severity of the condition. That said, the most common symptom is swelling in the arms or legs. Although less common, swelling can also occur in the face and neck. 

If you have lymphedema, you might also experience discomfort or other sensations in your body. The affected limb or area may feel heavy, tight, or achy. The skin may feel tense or stiff, and may develop folds or creases.

Other symptoms may include a decreased range of motion, a sensation of warmth in the affected area, and recurring infections in the affected limb or body part.

While lymphedema differs from varicose veins, they can frequently present similar symptoms. This is why it is important to consult a vein specialist if you have concerns about either issue, as correctly determining your specific needs will expedite and improve your care.

What kinds of lymphedema are there?

There are two types of lymphedema: primary and secondary.

Primary lymphedema is caused by a genetic mutation that affects the development of the lymphatic system. It can manifest at any age, and can affect one or both legs or arms. Primary lymphedema is sometimes referred to as ‘hereditary lymphedema’ or ‘congenital lymphedema.’

On the other hand, secondary lymphedema is caused by damage or disruption to the lymphatic system, usually due to cancer treatment, surgery, or infection.

While primary lymphedema is rare, affecting only about 1 in 100,000 people in the United States, secondary lymphedema is much more common. This is mainly due to the fact that surgical procedures, trauma, and radiation therapy significantly increase the risk of secondary lymphedema.

In fact, the leading causes of lymphedema in the US today are obesity and chronic venous insufficiency (or varicose vein disease). When secondary to vein disease, we call it “phlebolymphedema.” This occurs when the veins are not able to move the blood flow back to the heart from the feet due to leaky and damaged valves. The result is an overflow of fluid in the legs that cannot drain efficiently in the lymphatic system. 

It’s important to note that these terms are sometimes used interchangeably with other terms, such as ‘lymphatic dysfunction’ or ‘lymphatic insufficiency.’ However, the underlying causes and management of primary and secondary lymphedema are different, so it’s important to distinguish between the two.

Treatment options for lymphedema

As stated previously, lymphedema is a chronic condition for which there is currently no permanent cure. That being said, there are several ways to manage and treat it. 

The main goals of treatment with lymphedema are to reduce swelling, control pain, prevent infections, and improve the overall quality of life.

The first step is to identify the underlying cause. You should talk to your doctor about undergoing an ultrasound of the legs to rule out chronic venous insufficiency. If diagnosed, treating your vein disease will likely improve your swelling or slow down the progression of your lymphedema.

From there, physical therapy is a standard treatment option for lymphedema. This may include manual lymphatic drainage (MLD), a gentle massage that helps stimulate circulation and move lymphatic fluid out of affected areas. Compression garments, such as sleeves or stockings, can also be beneficial, as they apply pressure and promote lymphatic flow. These methods are similar to non-surgical treatments for varicose veins.

Surgical options for lymphedema can also be considered in severe cases where nonsurgical treatments are ineffective. Surgery to relieve the swelling may involve lymphatic bypass, lymph node transfers, or, in severe cases, debulking surgery in severe cases.

When dealing with lymphedema, taking care of your body through exercise and a healthy diet is important. Exercise can stimulate lymphatic flow and help reduce swelling, and strength training can also help improve muscle function and support the lymphatic system.

Eating a well-balanced diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and healthy fats can also help reduce inflammation and support your immune system. Staying hydrated is key, as dehydration can worsen lymphedema symptoms. These tips can further serve to help prevent the formation of varicose veins — though if varicose veins develop, numerous treatment options are available to resolve the issue.


At our vein clinic, we understand lymphedema’s challenges and are here to help. We specialize in providing comprehensive care and treatment options for those with vein issues in the Milwaukee, Wisconsin, area. If you are struggling with lymphedema, or simply have questions about vein health and potential risks, contact us for expert care and support.