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Lymphedema | Everything You Need To Know

If you’ve ever felt swelling of body parts seemingly out of nowhere – particularly in the arms or legs –  it can seem incredibly uncomfortable and frustrating.

You might find yourself wondering, “What is happening to my legs and feet and/or arms?”

If you’ve ever experienced this, this article may be for you.

One of the common causes of this swelling is an often misunderstood condition called lymphedema

Lymphedema can manifest in a few different ways. It can even impact your vein health and, in turn, your physical well-being. A lymphedema diagnosis can be a challenge to navigate and can significantly impact your quality of life. 

But do not worry: there are things you can do to learn more about your body and the condition and better manage symptoms. In this article, we will discuss lymphedema: its causes, signs and symptoms, treatment options, common misconceptions, and much more.

But wait – how does this relate to your veins? 

It’s a very interesting relationship. Let’s learn all about lymphedema and how it relates to your venous system (the veins in your body).

Understanding Lymphedema

Let’s start with the human body:

Your body has a lymphatic system. This is a part of your immune system. Each system in your body plays an important role.

The lymphatic system, in particular, helps remove excess fluids and waste from your body. 

However, when this system is compromised, fluids can accumulate, leading to swelling, particularly in the arms or legs.

Lymphedema[1] is characterized by this swelling of body parts and is often a result of impaired lymphatic drainage. 

So, if you suspect you may be suffering from lymphedema, your first signs of this disorder might be noticeable swelling of body parts, some discomfort, and changes to your skin. 

Symptoms and Early Detection

The best way to manage symptoms of lymphedema is early detection. So, if you notice swelling, discomfort, and skin changes, pay close attention to any further signs of lymphedema.

Additional symptoms might be [2]:

  • Persistent swelling
  • A sensation of tightness or heaviness in the affected limb
  • Restricted range of motion

If you notice any of these changes in your body, lymphedema may be the culprit.

But what brought about this condition? Keep reading to learn some causes of lymphedema, as there are multiple – and even different types.

Types of Lymphedema

Did you know that there is more than one type of lymphedema?

There are two kinds: primary and secondary lymphedema [3].

Understanding which type of lymphedema you are dealing with is essential and can help determine which treatment options work best to ensure the more effective management of symptoms.

The two types are: 

Primary Lymphedema: Genetic Factors

Primary lymphedema is the less common of the two types. This form of lymphedema is often present at birth or may develop later in life due to genetic factors[4].

As we mentioned, it often stems from issues with the lymphatic system. In this instance, your genetics may lead to abnormalities in your lymphatic system development. 

This then leads to an impaired drainage process in the body, so your body may have difficulty removing excess fluids. 

Secondary Lymphedema: Acquired Causes

Secondary lymphedema is much more common. This type of lymphedema also stems from damage to the lymphatic system[5]. However, unlike the genetic causes, your lymphatic system is damaged by a different cause, such as:

  • Surgery, such as lymph node removal
  • Radiation therapy
  • Infections
  • Trauma

That is why cancer survivors are often at a higher risk for secondary lymphedema, as are people who suffer from “venous insufficiency” – the improper functioning of leg veins.

Before we discuss treatment options for lymphedema, we have to focus on another part of your body: veins.

Believe it or not, the connection between the venous and lymphatic systems can help you understand the impact of lymphedema on your body. Let’s discuss the role of veins.

Role of Veins in Lymphedema

In general, veins play a pivotal role in lymphedema and the lymphatic system. The venous and lymphatic systems are closely connected. 

When lymphedema affects the body, it can exert pressure on the veins, the vessels that transport blood all through your body and to your heart. This then impacts your blood circulation. 

But when veins struggle to perform, the fluid balance in your body can be impacted. Then, the lymphatic vessels, which typically work in tandem with veins, struggle to perform their job, draining fluid from the body[6].

This swelling can further impede blood flow, leading to conditions like venous insufficiency[7]. This is a prime opportunity for lymphedema to make its appearance.

There are a few different vein conditions tied to lymphedema. In this next section, we’ll talk about common vein conditions and their impact. 

Common Vein Conditions and Lymphedema

Now that we’re familiar with the connection between our veins and the lymphatic system, we can describe a few common vein conditions that lead to – or worsen – lymphedema.

You may have heard these terms before varicose veins and deep vein thrombosis (DVT).

Let’s discuss how they affect the body:

Varicose veins [8] are enlarged veins, sometimes bulging, that disrupt the normal blood flow. As we’ve just learned, blood flow can impact the lymphatic system. By disrupting blood flow, they also affect the lymphatic system’s ability to manage bodily fluids.

Deep vein thrombosis occurs when blood clots form in deep veins, which can cause discomfort. Not only that: DVT can throw the entire circulatory system into disarray [9]. These clots create a domino effect on lymphatic drainage, resulting in issues like lymphedema. 

Essentially, both varicose veins and deep vein thrombosis indirectly affect the lymphatic vessels due to the close relationship between veins and the lymphatic system.

Since both ailments can trigger lymphedema or worsen existing lymphedema, management can be challenging to tackle. 

The good news? Understanding these conditions and knowing if your body is affected by them can help you determine the best course of action for managing lymphedema.

Continue reading to learn more about effective strategies for handling either of these vein conditions, which, in turn, can help manage lymphatic problems. 

Strategies for Dealing with Varicose Veins and DVT

Now that we know more about varicose veins and deep vein thrombosis, or DVT, we can tackle managing their symptoms.

If you are suffering from varicose veins, there are a few different lifestyle changes you can implement to manage symptoms.

Some of these are[10]: 

  • Aiming for a healthy weight
  • Getting regular exercise
  • Avoid wearing high heels

DVT, however, might require more medical intervention. Anticoagulant medications can be prescribed to prevent further clotting [11]. A medical professional can prescribe medication to help.

Regardless of the condition you are dealing with, it’s essential to focus on vein health in the presence of lymphedema. This includes:

  • Adherence to prescribed treatments for lymphedema and
  • Regular monitoring of vein function.

Diagnostic Approaches

At this point, we’ve shared with you the basics of lymphedema, its relationship to the veins in the body, and common vein problems that can cause or worsen lymphedema.

Educating yourself is an essential first step. Let’s move on to step 2:

If you suspect problems with your veins or lymphatic system, it’s time to explore diagnostic approaches[12].

Several steps can be taken to reach a diagnosis. Here are five different ways: 

1. Medical History and Physical Examination

First, if you suspect you have lymphedema or concerns regarding your veins or lymphatic system, turn to your healthcare provider. Share all your symptoms with a medical professional. They will gather more information on your medical history and lifestyle to better determine the cause of your venous or lymphatic issues.

2. Ultrasound Imaging

Another more thorough way to reach a diagnosis is through ultrasound imaging. This helps detect any blood flow issues you may have or clots or abnormalities in your veins. Ultrasound is crucial in determining the dynamics between your veins and lymphatic vessels.

3. CT or MRI Scans

A doctor may recommend CT or MRI scans for more of a deep dive. These scans provide detailed images of the circulatory and lymphatic systems. From there, they can help spot structural issues, abnormalities, or signs of lymphedema progression. 

4. Lymphoscintigraphy

While you may be familiar with CT or MRI scans, lymphoscintigraphy may be less familiar to you. Lymphoscintigraphy involves injecting a small quantity of radioactive substance into the body, which then traces the movement of lymphatic fluid [13]. A medical professional can see how fluid flows throughout the body from here.

5. Venography

With venography, a contrasting dye is injected into a large vein, making the vein visible on X-rays [14]. Healthcare professionals can get a detailed look inside the vein structure from here. It helps identify any abnormalities impacting lymphatic drainage.

As you can see, there are layers of diagnostic approaches, each more detailed than the last. 

Through these five steps and processes above, you can ideally receive an accurate diagnosis and, from there, determine the best treatment strategies for lymphedema.

Now that we’ve familiarized ourselves with the causes, how do we manage the symptoms?

We’ll discuss options for treatment in the next section.

Treatment Options for Lymphedema

Lymphedema can be uncomfortable, but it is manageable.

Below are nine ways to better manage your symptoms and treat the condition. By becoming familiar with these treatment options, you will be empowered to alleviate lymphedema symptoms: 

1. Compression Therapy

Specialized stockings or bandages create gentle pressure, which can help veins and lymphatic vessels perform more efficiently [15]. Wearing compression garments helps reduce swelling by providing external support to veins and lymphatic vessels.

2. Elevation

Lift your legs – by elevating your limbs, you’re aiding the natural flow of blood and lymphatic fluid to return to the heart. It’s a simple yet effective strategy, especially after a day of standing or sitting.

3. Exercise

Regular physical activity dramatically benefits your lymphatic system. It enhances circulation and reduces swelling, all while promoting overall health. It’s a win-win situation.

4. Weight Management

Maintaining a healthy weight is pivotal when having lymphedema. Extra weight on your body can put undue pressure on veins, contributing to developing or worsening lymphedema. Eating a balanced diet and regular exercise (see point 3) can help.

5. Manual Lymphatic Drainage (MLD)

MLD is like a massage tailored for your lymphatic system. Therapists use gentle, rhythmic movements to stimulate lymphatic drainage [16]. It’s a hands-on approach to keeping the fluid moving smoothly.

6. Complete Decongestive Therapy (CDT)

CDT is a combination of techniques used to manage lymphedema. This therapy includes manual lymphatic drainage, compression therapy, exercise, and skincare. [17].

7. Surgical Interventions

In some cases, surgical treatments may be necessary. There are a few treatment options: removing excess tissue, repairing damaged veins, or even lymph node transplantation [18]. The best type of surgical treatment will vary from person to person. 

8. Physical Therapy

Physical therapy enhances muscle strength, joint flexibility, and overall bodily function. It’s like a tailored workout plan for your specific needs, promoting better mobility and aiding in lymphedema management.

9. Medications

Medications like diuretics or anticoagulants may be prescribed to manage symptoms or prevent complications [19]. You may recall our earlier mention of anticoagulants. 

They play a supportive role in the overall treatment strategy, tackling specific aspects of the condition.

Remember, like treatments for ailments of all kinds, treatment for lymphedema is not one size fits all. Your healthcare team will tailor the plan based on your specific challenges. Choosing the most appropriate treatment strategy depends on a variety of factors, including:

  • The type and severity of lymphedema
  • Individual health factors
  • The guidance of healthcare professionals

A comprehensive and effective treatment plan requires a multidisciplinary approach considering lymphatic and vein health.

Lymphedema and Quality of Life

Lymphedema can be more than its physical effects. Beyond the symptoms, lymphedema can significantly impact your quality of life. 

The emotional and psychological toll of living with a chronic condition should not be underestimated. Let’s look into some of the additional concerns — and why it’s essential to address them: 

Emotional Impact

Dealing with the visible effects of lymphedema can lead to reduced self-esteem and feelings of self-consciousness. You might experience anxiety or depression as you navigate the challenges of managing the condition [20]. Establishing a strong support system, such as friends and family, and possibly a mental health professional is essential. 

Physical Limitations

In addition to the emotional impact, lymphedema can also impose physical limitations on daily activities. Once routine tasks may become more challenging due to the swelling and restricted movement. Occupational therapy and adaptive strategies can help increase independence and improve well-being if you deal with these limitations.

Coping Mechanisms

Developing effective coping mechanisms is critical to enhancing the quality of life for those with lymphedema. The following practices can contribute to a positive mindset:

  • Engaging in activities that bring joy
  • Practicing mindfulness [21]
  • Seeking peer support through community groups

The Role of Support Networks

As mentioned, support from family, friends, and fellow individuals facing lymphedema is invaluable.

Online communities and local support groups offer a platform for sharing experiences. Connecting with those who understand the journey can foster a sense of belonging. It can also reduce the feeling of isolation that can accompany chronic conditions.

Myths and Facts

You might have heard some common misconceptions about lymphedema before you encountered this article:

I thought this only affects older adults – it won’t affect me.

If I had lymphedema, it’d be evident with the swelling.

Why did you recommend exercise – doesn’t it make it worse?

Let’s take a second to debunk some myths surrounding vein health and lymphedema. Here are nine common misconceptions:

1. Myth: Lymphedema is Always Caused by Cancer

Fact: As mentioned earlier in this article, cancer-related treatments can contribute to lymphedema. However, the condition can also result from other causes, including genetic factors and infections [22].

2. Myth: Lymphedema is Always Visible

Fact: Lymphedema can manifest as visible swelling, but sometimes you may experience discomfort or a “heaviness” without obvious external signs [23]. It’s essential to recognize all possible symptoms, as that can lead to early detection and intervention.

3. Myth: Lymphedema is Untreatable

Fact: As we have discussed, several effective management strategies exist to help you lead a fulfilling life despite lymphedema, including [24]:

  • Compression therapy
  • Manual lymphatic drainage
  • Surgical interventions

4. Myth: Exercise Worsens Lymphedema

Fact: Contrary to popular belief, adequately prescribed exercises can alleviate symptoms and improve lymphatic function [25]. Physical activity is essential in managing lymphedema.

5. Myth: Only Women Get Lymphedema

Fact: While breast cancer-related lymphedema is well-known, men can also develop lymphedema. It can occur in any body part and is not exclusive to a particular gender [26].

6. Myth: Only Older Adults Experience Vein Issues.

Fact: Vein conditions can affect people of all ages [27]. While age may increase your risk, lifestyle factors, genetics, and other elements play a significant role in developing lymphedema.

7.  Compression Stockings Are Uncomfortable and Unstylish.

Fact: Modern compression socks come in various styles, colors, and pressure levels to suit individual preferences [28]. Chances are there is a pair out there that matches your personal style.

Addressing these misconceptions is crucial for sharing accurate information and promoting a supportive environment for people living with lymphedema.

And by dispelling myths, we reduce the stigma and empower those affected by the condition.


Oftentimes, a health problem is not isolated to one portion of the body. Lymphedema and its ties to vein conditions are a clear example of this.

Now that we’ve thoroughly explored this vein niche –  lymphedema and its connection to vein conditions – one thing becomes clear: it’s a multifaceted journey. 

Managing lymphedema is not just about addressing physical symptoms. It’s about finding a balance that encompasses your emotional well-being, social interactions, and everyday life.

Understanding disruptions to the lymphatic system and the strategies to address them is key to navigating the swell of lymphedema. 





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18. Kareh AM, Xu KY. Surgical Management of Lymphedema. Mo Med. 2020 Mar-Apr;117(2):143-148. PMID: 32308240; PMCID: PMC7144713.

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25. Morris C, Wonders KY. Concise review on the safety of exercise on symptoms of lymphedema. World J Clin Oncol. 2015 Aug 10;6(4):43-4. doi: 10.5306/wjco.v6.i4.43. PMID: 26266100; PMCID: PMC4530377.

26. Morfoisse F, Zamora A, Marchaud E, Nougue M, Diallo LH, David F, Roussel E, Lacazette E, Prats AC, Tatin F, Garmy-Susini B. Sex Hormones in Lymphedema. Cancers (Basel). 2021 Jan 30;13(3):530. doi: 10.3390/cancers13030530. PMID: 33573286; PMCID: PMC7866787.

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