Lymphedema & Edema

What is edema?

Edema is the medical term used for swelling caused by excess fluid trapped in the body’s tissue. It can affect all parts of the body, but is noticed most often in the hands, arms, feet, ankle and legs.

Edema happens when the small blood vessels leak fluid into nearby tissues. The extra fluid builds up, which makes the tissue swell.

There can be indentations or “pitting” that remains in the skin after pushing on the skin in some types of edema. This is called pitting edema. If the tissue springs back to its normal shape, it’s called non-pitting edema.

What is lymphedema?

Lymphedema is a chronic disorder of fluid retention and tissue swelling caused by a damaged lymphatic system. When the lymphatic system is damaged, lymph fluid can no longer flow properly, tissues of the affected region swell because of the accumulation of fluid, and lymphedema develops. 

There are two types of lymphedema, primary and secondary. Primary lymphedema is congenital. It is usually caused by lymph channels or lymph nodes that have not been properly formed whereas secondary lymphedema describes edema that develops during a patient’s lifetime and is not congenital. The causes of this can be operations, infections, or injuries, for example.

Risk factors and causes of lymphedema

Patients with cancer often go through radiotherapy of their lymph nodes, or the nodes are removed altogether. Naturally, this influences the whole lymphatic system, so edema can develop. Other factors, such as age or simply being female, can favor the onset of lymphedema.

In many cases, lymphedema also develops from a previous venous disorder combined with too little physical exercise. There are many causes, but the good news is that there are efficient treatment options available to give lymph patients their quality of life back.

How can compression help?

Those with venous system impairment have vein pressure that rises, causing watery blood components to leak into the tissues, the ankles and can cause the legs to swell up. The patient’s edema impaired lymphatic system has to work even harder to transport the fluid in the tissues back to the heart. Compression garments are worn to promote proper blood flow. Through graduated compression, these garments provide pressure on the affected area and prevent the backflow of blood through the insufficient venous valves.