Imagine having chronic
swelling in your arms and/or legs for the rest of your life – this is the
reality that a lot of women who have been diagnosed with lymphoedema live with
Lymphoedema is a chronic progressive condition that causes
swelling most commonly in the limbs because of “excessive retention of
lymphatic fluid”, according to the Cancer Association of South Africa.
In 2014, the organisation estimated that around 1.3 million South Africans had
some form of the condition.
The condition is not yet curable; it can only be managed with
vigorous diligence to treatment (which we’ll get to in a moment).
How does it work?
Academic medical centre Mayo Clinic explains
that the lymphatic system is pivotal for maintaining a well-functioning and
healthy body. Lymph fluid travels around your body collecting viruses and
bacteria – these are carried by the lymphatic system through lymph vessels and,
as the process continues, they are eventually flushed out of your body.
Read more: 11 symptoms of breast cancer in women that aren’t lumps
Lymphoedema happens when the lymph vessels become compromised and
can no longer efficiently flush out the lymph fluid in specific areas of your
body. These are the parts of the body that experience chronic swelling.
There are two types of lymphoedema: primary and secondary. Primary
lymphoedema refers to the condition developing on its own, and secondary
lymphoedema is when it’s caused by another condition. The primary type is a lot
less common than the secondary type and the causes for each are slightly different.
So, what are the causes?
An essay by members of the Lymphoedema Association of South Africa
(LAOSA) published in the Sabinet Journal outlines
the causes for primary and secondary lymphoedema.
As mentioned, primary lymphoedema is quite rare and it’s an inherited condition. Here are the
three main causes:
- Congenital (Milroy’s disease): This
condition makes lymph nodes form abnormally and one can develop this from birth
to two years old.
- Lymphoedema praecox (Meige’s disease):
This condition can cause lymphoedema from puberty to 35 years old. It can also
cause lymphoedema during pregnancy.
- Lymphoedema tarda: When lymphoedema
develops after the age of 35. Secondary lymphoedema, the most common type,
happens because of another condition’s effect on your lymphatic channels. Here
are the conditions/circumstances that can cause secondary lymphoedema:
- Surgery: Lymphoedema can develop if any
lymph nodes or lymph vessels are removed or damaged during surgery. This often
happens with breast cancer patients – lymph nodes sometimes need to be removed
to see if the cancer has spread.
- Radiation therapy: Radiation therapy
for cancer can scar and inflame the lymph nodes and lymph vessels, which can
- Cancer: Lymphoedema can develop if
cancer cells block lymphatic vessels.
- Filariasis: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention explains
that if a mosquito bites someone with lymphatic filariasis, microscopic worms
from the infected person’s blood infect that mosquito. When that mosquito bites
someone else, the worms go from the mosquito and enter the other person’s
bloodstream and eventually travel to the lymph vessels. This invasion to the
lymph vessels by the worms can cause lymphoedema.
What are the risk factors and preventative measures?
If you’re currently in treatment for cancer, or
you’ve just beaten the disease, older age, excess weight and/or developing
psoriatic arthritis could significantly increase your risk for developing
If you’re about to get surgery for cancer, or
you’ve already had it, there are a few preventative measures you can take to
reduce your risk of developing lymphoedema, but these are only relevant if the
surgery involved the lymph nodes or lymph vessels. You can find this out from
Read more: Here’s what women of every age should know about arthritis
You can reduce your risk by avoiding any type of
injury to the affected arm or leg; always making sure to rest your affected arm
or leg as much as you can during recovery; keeping the affected arm or leg
constantly elevated; avoiding clothes that are too tight; always keeping your
affected limb clean, and checking the skin on your affected limb every day. If
there are any abnormal changes, get in touch with your doctor. And lastly,
never go without shoes or socks.
that the most effective treatment for this condition is raising awareness on
risk reduction strategies. The same risk-reducing methods are also part of the
management of the condition. Because there’s no cure, most of the treatment is
centred around controlling the swelling and pain. LOASA offers some more
methods for risk reduction:
- No drawing blood, vaccinations,
acupuncture or taking blood pressure on the at-risk limbs.
- Avoid high-impact sports, carrying
heavy items or prolonged repetitive movements.
- Exposure to heat from places like steam
rooms, saunas or the sun should be avoided.
- When doing things like washing dishes
or gardening, always wear protective gloves.
- Always wear compression garments when
exercising and travelling long distances by plane or car.
- Engage in non-strenuous exercise
focused on mild contractions of the arm or leg muscles.
“The gold standard for treatment of lymphoedema is
complete decongestive therapy (CDT) and consists of manual lymph drainage;
compression therapy (includes multi-layered lymphoedema bandaging and
compression garments), home care, skincare and exercise.”
In severe cases of lymphoedema, doctors will often
recommend surgery to reduce the swelling in your arm or leg.
article was originally published on www.womenshealthsa.co.za
Image credit: iStock