What Is Lymphatic
A lymphatic obstruction is a blockage in the lymphatic system.
The lymphatic system is made up of lymph nodes and vessels that drain fluids
from your body’s tissues. The fluids carry toxins and other waste products to
your lymph nodes before your body eliminates them.
Lymph nodes are small, bean-like glands located in various parts
of the body, such as your neck, groin, and armpits. These glands are important
to your body’s immune system. They produce blood cells that help your body
A blockage in the lymphatic system causes tissues to become
swollen with lymphatic fluid. This is called lymphedema. It results in swelling
in your arms or legs.
You can be born with a lymphatic blockage that causes lymphedema
(called primary lymphedema) or you can develop lymphedema as a secondary
condition. Primary lymphedema is often the result of a genetic disorder, while
secondary lymphedema is usually a complication of cancer treatment.
Lymphatic obstruction is a
chronic condition for most people. This means you’ll probably need to treat the
swelling throughout your life.
Causes of Lymphatic
There are several different causes of primary and secondary
It’s largely hereditary, meaning you’re born with it. This is
less common than secondary lymphedema. You’re more likely to have primary
lymphedema if a family member is also affected. Two rare genetic conditions,
Milroy’s disease and Meige’s disease, cause the structures that make up your
lymphatic system to form incorrectly.
A mastectomy is one of the most common causes of secondary lymphedema. Surgeons often remove lymph
tissue from under the arm when they’re removing a cancerous breast. Fluids
draining from the arm must pass through the armpit. If lymph nodes are removed
from this area, lymphatic obstruction and swelling in the arm can occur.
radiation therapy can also cause
lymphedema to develop. Tumors and scar tissue from radiation and surgery can cause
Obstruction Signs and Symptoms
The primary sign of lymphatic obstruction is lymphedema.
Lymphedema causes swelling in your arms or legs. Your fingers or toes may also
retain fluid and swell. The swelling can limit your range of motion. You may
experience heaviness or a dull ache in the affected limb.
People with congenital lymphatic obstruction may show symptoms in
early childhood or at the onset of puberty.
Symptoms of secondary lymphedema
can appear any time after surgery. Most symptoms will appear within two to three years of surgery. However, some people don’t experience
swelling until months or years after their treatment.
Infections may occur along with the swelling of lymphatic
obstruction. Cellulitis is a type of skin infection. Lymphangitis is a
bacterial infection of the lymph vessels. Symptoms of infection include a streaky,
red rash or blotchy patch on the affected limb. Fever, itching, and chills can
accompany the edema (swelling) and rash.
Your doctor will perform a physical exam and ask you about your
Your doctor may order imaging tests if they suspect lymphatic
obstruction. A lymphangiogram is a type of X-ray scan that uses contrast
dye to make your lymph nodes and vessels stand out more clearly. Your doctor
will inject the dye into a vein between your toes. The X-ray images can reveal
blockages in your lymphatic drainage system.
How Is Lymphedema Classified?
The severity of lymphedema is classified into stages:
- Stage 1: This is the mildest form. Your limb is
usually normal size in the morning, but swells during the day. Tissue will hold
an indentation when you press on it.
- Stage 2: This stage is moderate. It’s
characterized by an irreversible form of swelling in which your limb tissue
feels spongy to the touch.
- Stage 3: This is the most severe stage. It
involves an irreversible form of edema in which your affected limb hardens and
becomes very large.
Treatment for Lymphatic
The goals of treatment are to reduce swelling as much as possible
and to retain range of motion in the affected limb. Lymphedema that is caused
by infection will be treated first with antibiotics in an effort to control
pain and swelling, and to prevent the infection from spreading.
a common form of treatment for lymphedema. Compressing the affected limb encourages
the lymphatic fluids to move toward your torso in a more normal pattern of
circulation. Wrapping your arm or leg tightly with an elastic bandage or
wearing a compression garment keeps continuous pressure on the swollen area.
Compression garments are socks, stockings, or sleeves that fit
tightly over the swollen limb. Your doctor may suggest buying compression
garments of a certain grade or level of compression according to the severity
of your condition. Compression garments are available at most pharmacies and
Another form of compression therapy is called pneumatic
compression. Pneumatic compression involves vests or sleeves that inflate and
stimulate the proper flow of lymphatic fluid.
Exercise can help manage lymphatic obstruction. Your muscles
contract during exercise. These contractions put pressure on your lymph
vessels. This helps fluid move through the vessels and reduces swelling.
Simple range of motion exercises such as knee bends or wrist rotations
are designed to maintain flexibility and mobility. Light exercises can also
stop fluid from pooling in
your arms or legs. Try walking, doing yoga or low-impact aerobics, and
swimming. Exercise for 20 to 30 minutes most days of the week. Speak with your
doctor before starting an exercise routine.
You may require manual lymph drainage if compression therapy isn’t
enough. Manual lymph drainage is a type of massage therapy performed
by a qualified professional. Manipulating tissues allows the lymph fluids to
drain more freely. You should not undergo manual drainage if you have
cellulitis or other types of skin infections.
The outlook for lymphatic obstruction varies for each person. In
most cases, you’ll deal with some level of swelling on a regular basis. You may
notice less swelling over time, but most people have permanent edema.