Lymphedema or Chronic Swelling of the Arms or Legs

The Vascular Center at Mercy - Baltimore, MD

The surgeons of The Vascular Center at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, Maryland, are experienced in the diagnosis and treatment of vascular disorders including lymphedema, a condition causing chronic swelling of the leg. 

About the Condition

Lymphedema refers to chronic swelling that affects the arms or legs. Lymphedema is caused by a blockage in the lymphatic system, responsible for removing harmful bacteria and waste within the circulatory system. The blockage prevents lymph fluid from draining well, and as the fluid builds up, the swelling continues. 

Lymphedema is most commonly caused by the removal of or damage to lymph nodes as a part of cancer treatment. Many breast cancer patients experience lymphedema symptoms.

NEXT: Symptoms & Diagnostic Process ›
Symptoms & Diagnostic Process

Symptoms of lymphedema include:

  • Swelling in the legs, arms, fingers, hands, shoulders or chest
  • Feeling of heaviness in the legs or arms
  • Reduced flexibility in the ankle, hand or wrist
  • Difficulty fitting into clothing in specific areas or accessories (bracelets, watch, rings) that are suddenly tight
  • Tightness of skin in affected area

Diagnosis requires a complete physical exam and medical history review.  If diagnosis is not confirmed with a physical exam, a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) may be ordered.

NEXT: Treatment Options ›
Treatment Options

Treatment options for lymphedema will depend on the cause of the condition and stage of the swelling.  Doctors at The Vascular Center at Mercy may refer patients to a physical therapist that specializes in managing lymphedema. Mercy is renowned for developing one of the region's most comprehensive lymphedema programs.

An individualized treatment plan may include:

  • A customized or complete exercise plan
  • Use of compression stockings or sleeves
  • Limitation on activities that are too vigorous or repetitive
  • Decongestive wrapping techniques
  • Manual fluid drainage with skin stretching or massage
  • Mechanical fluid drainage with pumping device

In cases of severe lymphedema, vascular surgeons may consider surgery to remove excess tissue in the arm or leg. While this reduces severe swelling, surgery can't cure lymphedema.