Swollen hands or legs? It could be Lymphoedema: What exactly is this condition and what causes it?
What is the lymphatic system?
First of all, I think it is important to understand what the lymphatic system is before we get into how it can go haywire and cause excessive swelling in the body.
The lymphatic system is an essential part of the body's immune system. It is responsible for removing excess fluid, waste, and toxins from the body's tissues. Super important, right!?!? Unlike the circulatory system, the lymphatic system does not have its own pump to move fluid throughout the body. Instead, it relies on the musculoskeletal system to return lymphatic fluid to the lymph nodes.
The lymphatic vessels are lined with smooth muscle cells that contract rhythmically to move lymphatic fluid through the vessels. However, these contractions alone are not enough to move fluid efficiently throughout the body, especially against gravity. Instead, the lymphatic system relies on external forces, such as the movement of muscles and joints, to help move lymphatic fluid. For more information on the lymphatic system and why it is such an important system in our body, click here to read our blog.
When muscles and joints contract and relax, they squeeze the lymphatic vessels and help move fluid towards the heart. This is why exercise and physical activity are so important for maintaining lymphatic health. When the muscles and joints are not used regularly, the lymphatic fluid can become stagnant, leading to lymphatic congestion and lymphoedema.
Lymphoedema is not simply a fancy name for swelling. Lymphoedema is a chronic condition that occurs when there is a blockage or disruption in the lymphatic system, causing a buildup of lymphatic fluid in the affected area. This condition can occur anywhere in the body but is most common in the arms or legs. This is partly due to gravity pulling the fluid towards the feet and hands, and partly to do with where the major lymphatic network is most prevalent (in your arm pits and groin). When these major lymphatic networks have blockages, the fluid can’t effectively pass by on its route back to the heart. In this blog post, we will discuss the two main types of lymphoedema, common causes of the condition, and the importance of early detection and treatment.
What are the signs and symptoms of Lymphoedema?
The signs and symptoms of lymphoedema can vary depending on how severely the patient has the condition. These can include some, or all, of the following to varying degrees:
Swelling: Swelling in the affected area is by far the most common symptom of lymphoedema. The swelling may be mild, moderate, or severe and can be accompanied by a feeling of heaviness or tightness.
Aching or discomfort: Along with the swelling, as mentioned above, one can experience ranging levels of aching or discomfort in the affected area, which is likely to be more noticeable after physical activity or spending time on your feet.
Limited range of motion: Lymphoedema can cause stiffness and limited range of motion in the affected area. This can make it difficult to perform daily activities, such as bending or lifting.
Skin changes: Lymphoedema can cause changes in the skin, such as thickening or hardening. The skin may also become dry and prone to infection.
Reduced function: In some cases, lymphoedema can interfere with daily activities and reduce overall function. For example, swelling in the legs can make it difficult to walk or stand for long periods of time, limiting many activities.
What are the different types of Lymphoedema?
There are two main types of lymphoedema: primary and secondary.
Primary lymphoedema is a rare genetic condition that occurs when the lymphatic system doesn't develop properly. This type of lymphoedema is usually present at birth or develops during puberty. Primary lymphoedema can also be caused by genetic mutations that affect the development or function of the lymphatic system. Needless to say, this is pretty rare. Thank goodness!!
Secondary lymphoedema is the most common type of lymphoedema and is caused as a result of something else, that then causes damage to the lymphatic system. This can be due to cancer, surgery, radiation therapy, infections, or trauma. There are even some cases where the underlying cause of secondary lymphoedema may be unknown.
What are the most common causes of secondary Lymphoedema?
Secondary lymphoedema can be caused by a range of conditions that damage the lymphatic system, including:
Cancer: Cancer would have to be the most common causes of lymphoedema, in particular breast cancer, as this commonly ends up with secondaries in the axillary lymph nodes.
Surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy: can all damage the lymphatic system and cause lymphoedema. The swelling, that is most common symptom of lymphoedema, can occur soon after treatment, or it may develop months or even years later.
Infections: Infections, such as cellulitis, can cause inflammation and damage to the lymphatic vessels, leading to lymphoedema.
Trauma: Injuries or surgeries that damage the lymphatic system can cause lymphoedema as well. Trauma or surgery in the groin or armpit is the most likely to lead to this condition.
Genetics: In some cases, lymphoedema is caused by genetic mutations that affect the development or function of the lymphatic system. These genetic mutations can be inherited from a parent or can occur spontaneously.
Obesity: Excess weight can put pressure on the lymphatic vessels, making it harder for lymphatic fluid to flow properly and increasing the risk of developing lymphoedema.
Sedentary lifestyle: A lack of physical activity can contribute to the development of lymphoedema by reducing the natural movement and pumping action of the muscles, which helps move lymphatic fluid through the vessels.
Age: As we age, the lymphatic vessels may become less efficient at removing lymphatic fluid from the body, which can increase the risk of lymphoedema.
Lymphoedema is a chronic condition that can have a significant impact on a person's quality of life. While there is currently no cure for lymphoedema, there are ways to manage the condition and prevent it from getting worse. For more information on natural ways to help with the symptoms of lymphoedema, please click here to view our blog on Lymphoedema: How to Eliminate Excess Fluid from the Body Naturally
Understanding the causes and risk factors for lymphoedema, as well as the signs and symptoms, is essential for early detection and treatment. If you are experiencing swelling or the other symptoms mentioned in this blog, it is important to speak with a healthcare professional to determine the cause and appropriate treatment. Remember the super important fact that the lymphatic system doesn’t have it’s own pump and relies on your to keep your body moving so that your muscles can help return the lymphatic fluid back towards your heart. An active lifestyle is a healthy lifestyle.