Lymphatic Obstruction (Lymphedema)

By Matthew Cenzon. May 7th 2016

Lymphatic obstruction, also known as lymphedema, is a condition that results when the lymph nodes become large as a result of swelling or fluid retention. A variety of causes including cancer, viruses and bacterial infections can cause the lymph nodes to swell. Lymphedema can be mild, moderate or severe and may require a biopsy for accurate diagnosis and treatment. There are a variety of lymphedema treatments available to help alleviate symptoms.

Lymph Nodes and the Body

Lymph nodes are part of the lymphatic system, which is a part of the immune system that helps filter a fluid called lymph. Lymph contains the white blood cells that help the body fight infection and prevent the growth of tumors. Lymphatic obstruction occurs when lymph is unable to move through the body the way it is supposed to.

These lymph nodes can become swollen and inflamed, especially if you have an infection or certain types of cancers. In some situations, a doctor will need to take a biopsy to analyze the lymph node and to understand what is causing the swelling. In many situations, the lymph nodes swell when there are problems related to circulation and fluid storage.

Types and Causes

Lymphedema can affect any lymph node in the lymphatic system. The types of lymphedema are related to the specific causes, which can include cancer, cancer treatments, infections, or injury. Blood clots and deep vein thrombosis can also cause the lymph nodes to become enlarged. It is important to note that lymphedema and edema are not the same condition. Lymphedema refers to a problem with the lymph nodes, and edema results when the veins have problems circulating oxygen through the heart.

Here are the two different types of lymphedema and their possible causes:

  • Primary lymphedema: this is caused by an abnormally developed lymph system, with signs and symptoms that may appear at birth or later in life. This form of lymphedema is less common. Primary lymphedema is typically inherited.
  • Secondary lymphedema: this is caused by damage to the lymph system. Damage may occur due to an infection, injury or cancer. Secondary lymphedema may also occur due to certain medical procedures like the removal of the lymph nodes, radiation, or scar tissue that is caused by surgery or radiation therapy.

Symptoms and Warning Signs

People with lymphedema will experience persistent swelling in the affected area, which could be anywhere on the body including the arm, neck or leg. People might also experience some drainage in the swollen area. Exhaustion and discolored skin may also occur. If the swelling becomes excessively large, the lymphedema patient may experience a permanent physical deformity.

Possible warning signs of lymphedema include:

  • Feeling that an arm or leg has become heavy
  • Tightening of the skin
  • Movement issues in an arm or leg
  • Hair loss
  • Sleeping issues
  • Clothing and accessories becoming tight, which is an indicator of swelling
  • Burning or itching sensation in the legs

Prevention and Treatment

If an infection is causing the lymph node to swell, a doctor may prescribe an antibiotic. If no infection is present, a physician will use techniques to improve circulation. Compression treatments may be used in the form of socks, bandages, and pumps. There are a variety of compression methods, and a doctor will select one based on your specific condition.

A doctor might also choose to drain the swollen lymph node if permanent injury is not a possibility. Usually, drainage techniques involve massage therapy to help facilitate fluid movement.

Lymphedema treatment may also involve physical therapy to improve movement and flexibility. For some patients, exercising can be extremely dangerous, so it is important to work with a medical professional.

There are several procedures available to help prevent lymphedema from developing after surgery, especially after surgeries for certain tumors and breast cancer. The effectiveness of these procedures is under dispute.

Tests and Diagnosis

Doctors frequently discover enlarged lymph nodes as part of a routine physical exam. Doctors who suspect enlarged lymph nodes may order CT or MRI scans. A biopsy may be necessary if cancer is a possibility. The doctor may try to determine other causes of swelling during the diagnosis for lymphatic obstruction. He or she may also take into account whether the patient is at a particularly higher risk for developing lymphedema.


There is currently no cure for lymphedema making it a lifelong condition that requires regular management. While improvement is possible, swelling is often permanent. Being diagnosed with lymphedema can cause great suffering and distress, but there are support groups that can help someone cope with this condition. Those suffering from lymphedema will also have to learn how to care for the affected area to avoid complications.


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