What Are the Possible Complications of Lymphedema?

Lymphedema is a condition in which one of the patient’s legs or arms is swollen. This swelling most often only affects one limb, but in some cases both legs or both arms can be swollen. This condition occurs when the lymphatic system has a blockage. This blockage results in swelling due to an accumulation of fluid. This accumulation results from the lymph not draining well due to the blockage.

There are only two main complications of lymphedema, but they can be very serious. This condition can be inherited (primary lymphedema) or caused by certain medical procedures (secondary lymphedema). The primary causes include meige’s disease, milroy’s disease, and late-onset lymphedema (most often begins after 35 years of age). The secondary causes include surgery, cancer, radiation treatment for cancer and infection.

Symptoms of Lymphedema

complications of lymphedema

The swelling associated with this condition varies greatly from mild to severe. In severe cases the swelling can make it impossible for the patient to move any of the affected limbs. The main symptom includes swelling in the leg or arm that can affect the entire limb or part of the limb, as well as sometimes affect the toes or fingers of the affected limb as well.

Other symptoms include a tight or heavy feeling in the affected limb, thickening or hardening of the skin of the affected limb, restricted range of motion in the affected limb, repeated infections in the affected limb, and discomfort or aching in the affected limb.

Diagnosing Lymphedema

When diagnosing this condition doctors will perform a physical examination and, in some cases, try to rule out other diseases and conditions that can cause this type of swelling. If the cause of this condition isn’t easily determined the doctor may perform a variety of tests, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), Doppler ultrasound, computerized tomography (CT scan), and lymphoscintigraphy.

Complications of Lymphedema

The two primary complications of lymphedema include infections and lymphangiosarcoma. The infections that can complicate lymphedema include cellulitis and lymphangitis. Lymphangiosarcoma is a type of soft tissue cancer. It is rare and can occur due to severe cases of lymphedema that are left untreated.

Treating Lymphedema

This condition cannot be cured, but it is manageable. The different treatment options include lightly exercising the affected limb(s), a type of massage known as manual lymph drainage to help the accumulation of lymph fluid drain from the affected limb, compression garments to help the accumulation of lymph fluid drain from the affected limb, using bandages to wrap the affected limb to help the accumulation of lymph fluid drain from the affected limb, and pneumatic compression to help the accumulation of lymph fluid drain from the affected limb.


Mayo Clinic. (2009). Lymphedema. Retrieved on April 29, 2010 from the Mayo Clinic: https://www.mayoclinic.com/health/lymphedema/DS00609

Vascular Web. Lymphedema. Retrieved on April 29, 2010 from Vascular Web: https://www.vascularweb.org/patients/NorthPoint/Lymphedema.html

Image Credits

Lymphedema: Orphanet Jouranl of Rare Diseases – Wikimedia Commons