In this day and age, everyone is more concerned with their health. They want to understand what their doctor is telling them and want to be informed enough to make good decisions concerning their health care.

When we have swelling in an extremity, it is important to understand the difference in edema and lymphedema. They have very different causes and the treatments; while similar in some circumstances they are entirely different.

What is Lymphedema?

The lymphatic system is often called our body’s second circulatory system. It collects and filters the interstitial fluid of the body and dumps it into the lymph nodes. Lymphedema occurs when the lymphatic vessels, which collect the lymph (proteins, wastes, water and fats) from cells in your body and carries this to the lymph nodes, are interrupted. The lymph nodes filter out the waste materials and then return the lymph to your blood stream. The system does not work properly when the lymph nodes become damaged or are removed by surgeries. The fluids cannot be drained and build up in the body resulting in swelling in the arms, legs, or the involved body part. Chronic swelling can affect anyone – of any age – and at any point in that individual’s lifetime. This kind of swelling lasts over a period of time and is marked by frequent recurrences. Generally if you have lymphedema you can benefit by seeking the advice of a physical therapist and undergo manual lymphatic drainage (MLD). Your therapist may wrap you in special bandaging, fit you in compression stockings or arm sleeves and teach you special exercises. It is always best to first seek the advice of you physician.

Lymphedema
  • Lymphedema is a response which happens when the lymphatic system is impaired (in an area) to the extent that it cannot handle the amount of fluid present.
  • Lymphedema is caused by excess protein-rich lymph which cannot be moved to a lymph node to dump in the circulatory system.
  • Lymphedema is a compromised tissue response to injury with slow healing and /or a infection.
  • Lymphedema is caused by damage to lymphatic system (accident or surgical intervention) or may be congenital. Swelling manifests itself near the damaged area.
  • In early stages a finger pressed into the affected area leaves a temporary indentation. This is pitting edema. In later stages the tissue bounces back with out any indentation.
  • Lymphedema is harmed, not helped by diuretics. Diuretics stimulate the kidneys to remove fluid from the body. In areas affected by lymphedema, tissue fluid is reduced which produces higher levels of protein. This can lead to swelling and hardening of the tissues.
Lymphedema Stage II

What is edema?

Edema is the swelling of arms and or legs resulting from the building up of excessive fluids in the tissue. The skin in the affected leg or arm will become stretched and appear shiny. Edema can be caused by prolonged sitting or standing without muscle movements; pregnancy which puts pressure on the vena cava (a major blood vessel that returns blood from the lower extremities back to the heart); an injury or sprain to the arms or legs. To test for edema you press your thumb over the swelled area with a slow pressure. If you see an indentation when you release pressure you should see a doctor to determine why the swelling is occurring. Edema is generally not a permanent issue and can be treated. If you have venous insufficiency resulting in mild edema you should keep your legs elevated and wear compression stockings. Exercise your legs even while sitting or traveling will generally keep your legs from swelling.

Edema
  • Edema is a response to an injury such as a sprain as the injury heals, the swelling subsides.
  • Edema is caused by excess tissue fluid which cannot be transported to the circulatory system.
  • Edema can be due to an injury, this will cause excess tissue fluid in an area to aid with the healing process.
  • Edema can be caused by circulatory problems, such as chronic venous insufficiency. This usually occurs in the lower extremities.
  • Both pitting and non-pitting edemas (when a finger pressed into the edema leaves no mark or indentation) can be found.
  • Diuretics can relieve some edemas by stimulating the kidneys to increase the urine output.
Inflammation of the veins with striped reddening and chronic venous insufficiency with swelling and skin discoloration

Edema resulting from venous insufficiency and lymphedema should not be confused. Untreated venous insufficiency can progress to venous/lymphatic disorder which is treated as lymphedema. If you suffer from either of these diseases and are experiencing swelling in the arms or legs, please contact your Physician. They are always the best source for diagnosis and treatment. Hopefully, by taking care of yourself, the swelling can be controlled, the pain can be treated, and you can get back to your normal life style. If you wear support stockings or compression garments of any type, always remember they are not a quick fix and must be routinely worn to maintain control of the swelling. We have many styles that offer the compression you need and look good at the same time.