Lymphedema occurs when the lymph system is damaged or blocked. Fluid builds up in soft body tissues and causes swelling. It is a common problem that may be caused by cancer and cancer treatment. Lymphedema usually affects an arm or leg, but it can also affect other parts of the body. Lymphedema can cause long-term physical, psychological, and social problems for patients.

The anatomy of the lymph system includes the lymph vessels and lymph organs, including the lymph nodes, tonsils, thymus, spleen, and bone marrow. Lymph (clear fluid) and lymphocytes travel through the lymph vessels and into the lymph nodes where the lymphocytes destroy harmful substances. The lymph enters the blood through a large vein near the heart.

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Lymphedema may be either primary or secondary:

  • Primary lymphedema is caused by the abnormal development of the lymph system. Symptoms may occur at birth or later in life.
  • Secondary lymphedema is caused by damage to the lymph system. The lymph system may be damaged or blocked by infection, injury, cancer, removal of lymph nodes, radiation to the affected area, or scar tissue from radiation therapy or surgery.


Possible signs of lymphedema include swelling of the arms or legs.  Symptoms may include a feeling of heaviness or fullness, edema, and (occasionally) aching pain in the affected area. In advanced lymphedema, there may be the presence of skin changes such as discoloration, verrucous (wart-like) hyperplasia, hyperkeratosis, and papillomatosis; and eventually deformity (elephantiasis).

These symptoms may occur very slowly over time or more quickly if there is an infection or injury to the arm or leg.


It is important to choose a doctor with the right medical background and access to the latest technology including Doppler Duplex ultrasound Exam capabilities.  Lymphedema should not be confused with edema arising from venous insufficiency. However, untreated venous insufficiency can progress into a combined venous/lymphatic disorder which is treated the same way as lymphedema.

Treatment for lymphedema varies depending on the severity of the edema and the degree of fibrosis of the affected limb and includes: