Overview of Lymphedema

Lymphedema is a disorder of the lymphatic system, which is an important part of the immune system. While Lymphedema can occur spontaneously (congenital, or primary lymphedema), most cases of lymphedema in the United States result from treatment for cancer with surgery, radiation, or both (secondary lymphedema).

In an arm or leg, the lymphedema commonly can cause:

Devastating, rapidly spreading infections
Severe swelling
Loss of mobility and function
Pain and discomfort
Emotional distress
Interference with work and daily activities

Progression of Lymphedema

The lymphatic system involves a circulation of lymphatic fluid, called lymph. Lymphedema occurs when the circulation and drainage of lymph is disrupted, such as after surgery or radiation therapy. Initially, the damage to the lymphatic system can be seen only with specialized imaging methods such as lymphoscintigraphy or indocyanine green (ICG) mapping, and is called stage 0 lymphedema.