What Causes Lymphedema?

Lymphedema is caused by a defect or damage within the lymphatic system. There are two types of Lymphedema: primary and secondary. Primary lymphedema is a genetic condition linked to a physical defect in the lymphatic nodes. Physical trauma that overloads the lymphatic system, such as infection, injury, or allergic reactions, can trigger primary lymphedema.

Secondary lymphedema is more common and occurs after a trauma involving the lymph nodes, such as breast, uterine, or prostate cancer, surgery, or cancer treatments. It can appear immediately or long after a medical procedure.

Another very common cause of lymphedema is Chronic Venous Insufficiency or Venous Stasis. The venous system can break down from chronic stress overload. This can cause the valves in the veins to collapse or get blocked while water starts to accumulate, typically in the legs. The lymphatic system can initially handle the increased load, however with time and repeated stress, the lymphatic system will give way, resulting in lymphedema.

During the first stages of chronic venous problems a doctor may prescribe medication to control the problem. Once lymphedema sets in, the effectiveness of medication declines and a specialized lymphedema therapist should be consulted. Chronic venous problems may present with discoloration, typically a deep reddish brown stain to the skin. Venous ulcers or wounds are common but usually respond well to treatment.