Lymphedema, or lymphatic obstruction, is swelling that generally occurs in your arms or legs. The lymphatic system is part of your immune system and is crucial to keeping your body healthy. It circulates protein-rich lymph fluid through your body, picking up waste, bacteria and viruses. Your lymph nodes filter out the waste and flush it from your body. When lymph nodes are damaged or blocked, the fluid builds up in your body’s soft tissues causing excess swelling.

Lymphedema can happen anywhere in your body, including your chest, head and genitals, but it’s usually in just one arm or leg. It can be hereditary (Primary Lymphedema) or it can occur after infection, cancer surgery, radiation therapy or other physical trauma that damages your lymph nodes (Secondary Lymphedema). Being older, overweight, or having rheumatoid or psoriatic arthritis also raises your chances of lymphedema.

While lymphedema cannot be cured, you can control the swelling and keep it from getting worse with exercise, compression garments and other management techniques. If it is severe, your doctor may consider surgery to remove excess tissue to reduce swelling.

Symptoms may include

  • Swelling of part or all of your arm or leg, including fingers or toes
  • A feeling of heaviness or tightness
  • Restricted range of motion
  • Aching or discomfort
  • Recurring infections
  • Hardening and thickening of the skin (fibrosis)