Lymphedema refers to build up of fluid in the soft tissues as a result of damage to, interruption of, or disorganization in the lymphatic system. In the United States, the most common origin of a patient’s development of lymphedema is a side effect of necessary treatments for a disease process, such as cancer. When lymph nodes are sampled from armpit or groin regions, this has potential for development of swelling in the limb. This is particularly true when the lymph node removal is necessarily followed by radiation treatment.
In the case of breast cancer, for example, some or all of the lymph nodes may be removed from the armpit region. This alone may result in lymphedema of the arm. Fortunately, sentinel lymph node techniques have greatly reduced the incidence of lymphedema. To reduce risk of local recurrence, the armpit region may be radiated after surgery. While this may reduce the local recurrence rate of cancer in specific cases, it may also increase the incidence of lymphedema.
The initial treatment of lymphedema will be conservative management with a therapist specifically trained in techniques such as massage and wrapping that will help mobilize fluid out of the affected limb. If these measures are not effective or have limited results, the patient may continue to have enlargement of the limb, tightness, discomfort, frequent infections, and displeasure with appearance.