Updated: June 3, 2019
Chances are if you are reading this, that one of your legs is larger than the other, but what causes the swelling in only one leg? The answer is lymphedema, which is also known as lymphatic obstruction. In order to better understand lymphedema, it is first important to understand the lymphatic system.
About the Lymphatic System
The lymphatic system is considered part of the circulatory system. Instead of transporting blood, it transports lymph, a protein-rich fluid in the body. The main role of the lymph is to pick up bacteria and viruses through the body, which are then filtered by lymph nodes, that are scattered throughout the body, like those found in our neck, for removal. An obstruction in this fluid movement can occur anywhere in the body, but most commonly occurs in a single arm or leg.
Causes of Lymphedema
Lymphedema is caused by an underlying medication condition and there are two types of lymphedema, primary and secondary. Primary lymphedema is less common and is usually caused by an inherited condition, meaning you were born with a genetic disease, such as Milroy’s disease or Meige’s disease. Secondary lymphedema is much more common and occurs when several different factors affect the lymphatic system. Among the most common causes of secondary lymphedema are cancer, radiation treatments, surgical removal of lymph nodes, and infection.
Symptoms of Lymphedema
No matter the type of lymphedema, the symptoms are the same. Swelling of a single leg, or in some cases arm, is usually the first symptom of lymphedema. Many will experience symptoms of heaviness in the leg and decreased range of motion or ability to move the leg. The overlying skin may harden and is more prone to infections of the skin, called cellulitis. Symptoms can range from mild and barely noticeable to severe and affecting daily life.
Treatment for Lymphedema
Unfortunately, there is no cure for lymphedema, but there are certain ways to treat and reduce symptoms. Exercise is a mainstay for treatment to have the muscles squeeze on the lymphatic ducts to push fluid out of the leg. Another mainstay for treatment is compression to squeeze the fluid up and out of the leg. Lymphatic massages use a special technique to stimulate the lymphatic flow in the leg.
Even though there is no cure for lymphedema, if you are experiencing one leg that is larger than the other, earlier treatment can lead to better outcomes with less symptoms of pain. Contact your doctor today to find out if lymphedema is the cause of your leg swelling and the best treatment options for you.