Your lymphatic system has multiple, interrelated functions for the body. For example, lymph vessels collect excess lymph fluids, which are proteins, lipids, and wastes, and remove them from tissues. The lymph nodes not only filter these interstitial fluids, but they also contain white blood cells and lymphocytes, which fight infections and illnesses. If these lymph vessels become blocked, the entire system is unable to get rid of the excess fluid and flow properly. This condition is known as lymphedema. There are two types of lymphedema known as primary and secondary. The first is present at birth whereas the latter develops after the lymphatic system is damaged. The most common cause of lymphedema in the United States is breast cancer treatments such as radiation, but globally a parasite infection known as filariasis is the main culprit. There are four stages of lymphedema and no known cure. If you notice any of these ten symptoms of lymphedema, contact your doctor immediately for diagnosis and treatment.
Sensational Heaviness of a Limb
This is one of the earliest signs of lymphedema. During stage zero of lymphedema, the symptoms will develop slowly. The apparent symptom of swelling will not be present yet. However, the protein molecules that are not being filtered out properly will start to accumulate underneath your skin. Even though the limb looks presumably normal on the outside, the extra water will pull into the affected area and cause heaviness.
Fatigue in a Limb
Just like a sensational heaviness of the affected area, fatigue of that same limb might also occur during stage zero of lymphedema. Do not ignore these very early symptoms of lymphedema. The internal changes have already begun and will respond if treated. If you notice a heaviness or fatigue in a region of the arm or leg, talk to your doctor immediately. It can reduce the chance of edema worsening into more uncomfortable symptoms.
Puffiness of the Skin
Stage one of lymphedema is characterized by a puffy appearance on the farthest part of the limb. For example, if the lymph vessels are blocked in your leg then your foot will look puffy. Likewise, if the flow is impaired in your arm, your hand might get puffier than usual. This is the first sign of swelling you may notice associated with lymphedema.
A Decreased Ability to See Veins
As the disease progresses, you may have trouble seeing or feeling the veins or tendons in your affected limbs. There will be impressions on your skin from the underlying pressure on the skin. This pushing appearance is also known as ‘pitting’ edema. If you can no longer see veins on top of your foot or hand, then you might be in the first stage of lymphedema. At this stage, the swelling might reduce overnight or with elevation. However, this is only a temporary way to lessen the symptoms of lymphedema.
Tightness of the Joints
Depending on what part of your body is puffy, those related joints may hurt also. For example, if your feet are puffy than your ankles and toes might be stiff. Eventually, your knee can become tight and sore. On the other hand (pun intended), you may experience tightness and stiffness in your fingers, wrists, and elbows if the lymph vessels are blocked under your arm.
Asymmetric Appearance of the Extremities
If you have lymphedema, one side of your body will become noticeably swollen. While lymphedema will not affect you from head to toe immediately, it will target a specific extremity and spread. For example, your foot might be puffy, but then several months later, your leg will be more swollen than usual, and your knee joints are stiff. As the stages progress, the asymmetric appearance of your limbs will be more obvious. Visit your doctor to plan a treatment that will reduce the excess fluids in your body.
During stage two of lymphedema, the pitting symptom will be less obvious as the skin takes on a spongy consistency. The swelling will not subside overnight or respond to elevation. At this point, too much scar tissue has made the tissue form to that consistency. As the disease progresses, the tissue will continue to thicken, and the size of the limb will increase as well. Your doctor can help focus your treatment on reducing the fluid volume in your limb as well as softening the scar tissue.
Dry, Scaly Skin
The third and final stage of lymphedema, the limbs grow even larger. However, another noticeable symptom is excessively dry and scaly skin on the affected limb. Each person is affected differently by lymphedema. However, even with subtle differences in symptoms and stages, all of the signs are continuous. Even though there is no cure for lymphedema, if you leave the symptoms untreated they will only get progressively worse.
Blisters and other excess skin projections can form during stage three of lymphedema. After all this time, the extra fluid is still trying to filter out of the body. Since the lymph vessels are blocked, blisters form as the body’s attempt to contain the fluid. While there is no cure for lymphedema, your doctor can help keep the symptoms at bay and halt the progression of the disease.
It is common for a skin infection to develop during the third stage of lymphedema. The skin projections and blisters may leak fluid, which can easily cause an infection. Because of all the excessive fluids trapped in the body, the heaviness of the limb, which was the first sign of lymphedema, is practically unbearable at this point. Continue to visit your doctor to monitor and treat the symptoms. Reducing the risk of infection is one of the main goals in controlling lymphedema.