Lymphatic obstruction is a blockage of the lymph nodes -- vessels that drain fluid from tissues throughout the body and allow immune cells to travel where they are needed.
Lymphatic obstruction is also called lymphedema, which means swelling of the lymph passages. Lymph nodes may be enlarged for any reason.
There are many causes of lymphatic obstruction, including:
In Western societies, one of the most common causes of lymphedema is removal of the breast (mastectomy) and underarm lymph tissue for breast cancer. This can cause lymphedema of the arm in 10 - 15% of patients. This occurs because the lymphatic drainage of the arm passes through the armpit (axilla), and tissue in the axilla is removed during a mastectomy.
Rare forms of lymphedema that are present from birth (congenital) may result from problems in the development of the lymphatic vessels.
The main symptom is persistent (chronic) swelling, usually of the arm or leg.
The doctor will perform a physical exam and ask questions about your medical history.
The following tests may be done:
Lymphedema is a chronic disease that usually requires lifelong management. In some cases, lymphedema improves with time. However, some swelling is usually permanent.
See your doctor if you have swelling of your arms, legs, or lymph nodes that does not go away.
In addition to swelling, the most common complications include:
- Chronic wounds and ulcers
- Skin breakdown
You must be vigilant about skin care and hygiene. There is also a small risk of developing a lymph-tissue type of cancer.
Treatment for lymphedema includes:
- Compression (usually with multilayered bandages)
- Manual lymph drainage (MLD)
- Range of motion exercises
Manual lymph drainage is a light massage therapy technique in which the skin is moved in certain directions based on the structure of the lymphatic system. This helps the fluid and waste drain through the right channels.
Treatment also includes skin care to prevent injuries, infection, and skin breakdown, as well as light exercise and movement programs. Exercise should be carefully designed by a physical therapist. It should help drainage without leading to swelling from overexertion, which could make your condition worse.
Wearing compression stockings on the affected area or using a pneumatic compression pump on and off may be helpful. Your doctor and physical therapist will decide which compression methods are best.
Surgery is used in some cases, but it has limited success. The surgeon must have a lot of experience with this type of procedure. You will still need physical therapy after surgery to reduce lymphedema.
Types of surgery include:
- Removal of abnormal lymphatic tissue
- Transplant of normal lymphatic tissues to areas with abnormal lymphatic drainage (less common)
Rarely, the surgeon will bypass abnormal lymph tissue using vein grafts. These procedures are not usually successful and are often done experimentally.
Some surgeons are using a technique called sentinel lymph node dissection to prevent lymphedema from developing after surgery for breast cancer. However, this technique is not always appropriate or effective.
Kerchner K, Fleischer A, Yosipovitch G. Lower extremity lymphedema update: pathophysiology, diagnosis, and treatment guidelines. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2008;59:324-331.
Freedman DO. Filariasis. In: Goldman L, Ausiello D, eds. Cecil Medicine. 23rd ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2007:chap 379.
Muss HB. Breast cancer and differential diagnosis of benign lesions. In: Goldman L, Ausiello D, eds. Cecil Medicine. 23rd ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2007:chap 208.
Review Date: 8/2/2008
Reviewed By: David C. Dugdale, III, MD, Professor of Medicine, Division of General Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.
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