Leg Vein Health

Updated 27 January 2016

Obesity raises risk for lymphedema

The health risks associated with being overweight and obese are well publicised, but new research may add another condition to this list: leg lymphedema, pain and swelling due to blockage of the lymph nodes in the groin area.

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The health risks associated with being overweight and obese are well publicised, but new research may add another condition to this list: leg lymphedema, pain and swelling due to blockage of the lymph nodes in the groin area.

Lymphedema  in the arms traditionally is associated with breast cancer surgery that involves removal of or damage to the lymph nodes. A blockage in the lymphatic system can prevent proper drainage of lymph fluid. As fluid builds up, pain and swelling can occur.

Read: Weight lifting helps lymphedema 

In a letter published in the New England Journal of Medicine, Dr Arin Greene and colleagues at Children's Hospital Boston reported on 15 obese individuals with swelling in both legs. They diagnosed five of these individuals with leg lymphedema, and the cause of the condition was obesity.

"We now believe that obesity is a risk factor for lymphedema if the BMI becomes greater than 60," Greene said. "It only seems to affect the legs, but we have not investigated the arms."

Lymphedema BMI usually over 70

Individuals in the study who had a body-mass index (BMI) lower than 54 had normal lymphatic function. The average BMI of the patients with lymphedema was 70; BMI of 30 or greater is considered obese. BMI is a measure of body fat based on an individual's height and weight.

Other risk factors for leg lymphedema include injury to the lymph nodes in the groin because of infection, surgery or radiation. In addition, people can be born with the condition. Regardless of the cause, leg lymphedema can cause pain, swelling and infections.

Although there is no cure for lymphedema, compression and significant weight loss may help relieve the pain and swelling, Greene said.

Read: Home-based exercise programmes more effective

Lymphedema in the legs manifests itself as swelling, pain, discomfort, tightness in the skin, decreased flexibility and difficulty walking, said Cathy Kleinman-Barnett, a lymphedema specialist at the Lymphedema/Edema Management Program at Northwest Medical Center in Margate, Fla.

"Obesity causes lymphedema because the sheer additional weight puts too much pressure on the lymph nodes in the groin area, compromising the system," she said. "This causes a fluid backup like a clogged drain. Skin can thicken, harden and become red, dry and warm to touch."

Treatment needed

It's important to treat the condition, she added, because "it can really interfere with a person's quality of life in a physical and a psychosocial way as people may be less inclined to go out and interact with others."

Read: Could dark chocolate ease poor leg circulation?

Kleinman-Barnett said lymphedema therapists can prescribe a program of manual lymphatic drainage, which helps direct lymph flow out of the congested areas.

Recommendations on skin care, compression bandaging and exercises also can help, she said.

More than 35% of US adults are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Obesity already is known to increase the risk of heart disease, diabetes, arthritis and certain types of cancer. 

Read more: 

In-flight fitness

Compression bandages work for lymphedema 

Stilletos physically alter legs 

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Dr. Riaz Motara is a specialist physician and cardiologist. He has an interest in preventative cardiology. He runs Veinsculpt, the first and only comprehensive vein clinic in South Africa, using endo-venous laser ablation as the treatment of choice.He also operates the only Women's Heart Clinic in South Africa.

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