Lymphedema is the stagnation of protein-rich lymph fluid in the superficial tissues, which can have significant pathological and clinical consequences for a patient left untreated. Lymphedema can result in an abnormal amount of protein fluid collecting the tissues of the extremity. This stagnant, protein rich fluid not only causes tissue channels to increase in size and number, but also reduces oxygen through the port system, which interferes with wound healing and provides a culture of medium for bacteria that can result in various infections. A chronic inflammatory condition stemming from this accumulation of fluid eventually results in fibrotic or hardened tissues. Once present, this chronic and progressive condition will not disappear again. Swelling can occur in any area of the body, most often noted in the arm or the leg.
Characteristics of Lymphedema
Excessive protein and fluid in the tissues
In early stages of lymphedema, indentations can bee seen in the skin with pressure
In later stages the tissues become hard and fibrotic
Stages of lymphedema
Stage 1: Reversible – Mild swelling that may improve with elevation only to return during the course of the day. Symptoms are Tightness, discomfort, skin indentations with pressure, jewelry and/or clothing no longer fit properly.
Stage 2: Spontaneously Irreversible – Moderate swelling with gardening of skin and tissues. Elevation has little to no effect on edema at this stage. Symptoms are discoloration, dryness, weeping of tissue, potential wounds, chronic infections, and pain.
Stage 3: Elephantiasis – Severe swelling and skin changes (skin hardening with growths, leaking from openings in the skin, and lobes). The weight of the limb may contribute to decreased quality of life. Symptoms are decreased mobility due to increased weight of the limb, severe wounds, chronic hospitalization caused by infections, and significant physical changes to the extremities.