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Causes of Lymphedema

written by: R. Elizabeth C. Kitchen • edited by: Diana Cooper • updated: 2/28/2011

What is the cause of lymphedema? Here we will discuss the various causes of this condition.

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    Lymphedema is a condition that results from a lymphatic system blockage. This blockage results in lymph fluid being unable to drain as it should, which results in it building up in the body. This causes the characteristic swelling. While this condition can be controlled, there is no cure. So, what is the cause of lymphedema?

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    Milroy Disease

    Also known as congenital lymphedema, Milroy disease, is an inherited disorder. It causes lymph node malformations that eventually result in lymphedema. It begins in infancy and is an inherited disorder. This condition is rare and it is unknown how many are affected. Both sides of the body are usually affected. Other symptoms may include upslanting toenails, wart-like growths, deep creases in the toes and prominent leg veins. There is no cure.

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    Meige's Disease

    Those with this disorder often begin to experience lymphedema in childhood or near puberty. However, some do not experience it until they are in their 20s or late 30s. This disorder results in the lymph vessels forming with no valves. Without these valves, the lymph fluid can flow backward. This results in the body having trouble draining the lymph fluid from the limbs. In addition to lymphedema, patients may also experience different blepharospasm-related symptoms and oromandibular-related symptoms. There is no cure.

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    Late-Onset Lymphedema

    This is a rare condition. There is no cure. It is also referred to as lymphedema tarda. Those who are affected typically do not begin experiencing symptoms until they are older than 35.

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    Surgery

    If a patient has surgery and has any lymph vessels or lymph nodes cut or removed, there is the chance that this will be a cause of lymphedema. An example is surgery for breast cancer. This may include also removing at least one armpit lymph node to determine if the patient's breast cancer has metastasized. If the lymph vessels and lymph nodes that remain are unable to make up for those that are missing, lymphedema may occur in the arm.

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    Cancer

    Lymphatic vessels are sometimes blocked by cancer cells, which can result in lymphedema. An example is a tumor developing close to a lymph vessel or lymph node. If it grows to a large enough size, it may obstruct or block lymph fluid flow.

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    Radiation

    The lymph vessels or lymph nodes may become scarred as a result of radiation treatment for cancer. If this occurs, the flow of lymph fluid may be restricted.

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    Infection

    If an infection invades the lymph nodes or lymph vessels, lymphedema may result from the flow of lymph fluid being restricted. Lymph vessels can also become blocked from parasites. Lymphedema caused by an infection is most commonly seen in subtropical and tropical regions. It is also more common in developing countries.

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    Resources

    Mayo Clinic. (2009). Lymphedema. Retrieved on February 28, 2011 from the Mayo Clinic: http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/lymphedema/DS00609

    PubMed Health. (2010). Lymphatic Obstruction. Retrieved on February 28, 2011 from PubMed Health: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0002106/