Lymphedema is the swelling of the upper or lower, soft body tissues (arms, legs, etc.) that occurs as a result of the buildup of lymph fluid in the affected areas. A healthy, properly-functioning lymphatic system filters lymph through the lymph nodes and transports it back towards the heart to be re-circulated throughout the body. However, if the lymphatic system isn’t functioning properly, the body tissues cannot drain the lymph, which results in lymph buildup and swelling of the area.

There are two different kinds of lymphedema: primary lymphdema, which is caused by a defect of the lymphatic system either at birth or later on in life, and secondary lymphedema, which results from various cancer (breast, cervical, prostate and melanoma) treatments such as surgery or radiation. Some risk factors of swelling include obesity, smoking, injury or infection to the swollen area, high blood pressure, diabetes and scar tissue in the lymph ducts after surgery or radiation.

Signs and symptoms of lymphedema include unusual swelling of the limbs, decreased flexibility and joint movement in the affected areas, full, heavy, stiff, tight or numb feeling of the affected limb(s), thickening of the skin without any calluses or blisters, and increased tightness in clothing, shoes or jewelry.

Although there is no known cure for primary lymphedema, there are several ways to manage it, as well as to prevent the onset of secondary lymphedema. These include maintaining a healthy diet and body weight, exercising, protecting the hands by carefully washing and moisturizing them, protecting the body from the sun with sunscreen, staying out of direct sunlight, and regularly cutting and maintaining fingernails. Please note that this is only a partial list of preventative measures to take against lymphedema. For a more exhaustive list, please go to the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation.

There are two main treatments for lymphedema: Manual Lymph Drainage (MLD) and Complete Decongestive Therapy (CDT). The MLD treatment was developed by Dr. Emile Vodder and is a manual treatment that involves stimulating the lymph flow while using gentle massage movements. It has proven to be an effective, world-renowned lymphedema treatment. The CDT treatment is a comprehensive regime that combines many different elements and has proven to be effective for chronic lymphedema patients. It involves a combination of MLD, bandage treatments, exercise and skin and nail care.

For more information about Manual Lymph Drainage, please go to the Dr. Vodder School.

For more information about Complete Decongestive Therapy, please go to Klose Training and Consulting.

For additional general information about lymphedema, please go to the National Cancer Institute, the Lymphedema Association of Ontario, or the Princess Margaret Hospital.

For information in French, please visit the following site: Centre universitaire de santé McGill

Lymphedema Groups in Canada

International Lymphedema Groups