Updated: 2021, Jun 17

Water Retention & Lymphedema: Types, Symptoms and Treatments


Lymphedema is an extremely dangerous type of water retention. This condition can lead to infections and other medical problems. Each year, an estimated 140 million people are affected by lymphedema.

Water Retention & Lymphedema: Types, Symptoms and Treatments

What is Lymphedema?

Water Retention and LymphedemaImage Source: livelifelymph.com

Also known as lymphatic obstruction, this medical ailment occurs when the lymphatic system does not work properly. Since the lymphatic system is not functioning, it sends interstitial fluid back to the thoracic duct and the blood stream. At this point, the fluid is pushed back into the tissue. When this condition occurs, it can cause swelling in the affected tissue as well as severe fluid retention. Anyone who suffers from lymphedema may also develop an infection in the tissue.

What are the Types of Lymphedema?

Primary lymphedema does not have a known cause. Researchers believe that it may be genetic or caused by missing lymph nodes. Due to these factors, the condition may be present at birth or develop during puberty. In men, primary lymphedema typically affects the lower limbs.

Secondary lymphedema can affect both genders. Women typically develop it in the upper part of their body after a surgery for breast cancer or other medical surgery. Statistically, 28 to 89 percent of breast cancer patients end up developing lymphedema after radiation or lymph node dissection. Men tend to develop lymphedema after radiation for cancer or the removal of lymph glands. Sometimes cancer patients also develop lymphedema after undergoing changing cabin pressure during a flight.

In cases of lower-limb lymphedema, individuals may develop the medical condition after having blood clots or deep vein thrombosis. All three of these conditions may be caused by the medication, tamoxifen.

How Does it Affect the Lymphatic System?

Lymph is created when from fluid that is filtered out of the blood. Once this occurs, it is sent back to the venous capillaries via the blood. Some of the fluid returns to the lymphatic collection system so that the body remains within balance. Collectors in the lymph nodes collect the fluid and allow it to enter the cells. After it enters the lumen, the fluid is transported to larger valves and vessels. Next, it is pumped through the vessel walls with the assistance of the nervous system. Nearby muscles and arteries can also influence the effectiveness of the peristalsis action. If lymphedema is present, the lymph nodes may become damaged. Over time, the surrounding tissue may become pitted and the tissue may become spongy. In the last stage of the disorder, the affected limb becomes extremely large and the results are essentially irreversible.

What are the Symptoms of Lymphedema?

Symptoms of Lymphedema

Some common symptoms associated with lymphedema include swollen limbs and localized water retention. Fluid retention may occur within the head, neck or extremities. In addition to the swelling, the affected area may become discolored or deformed. Individuals may notice that the limb feels tighter or heavier than normal. If the condition affects the arms and legs, these extremities may have a reduced range of motion. In addition, individuals may deal with hardened skin, recurring infections or severe discomfort. The swelling may range from severe to mild. If the lymphedema occurred after cancer treatment or has been ongoing, individuals should always discuss treatment options with their doctor.

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What Factors are Responsible for Lymphedema?

In very rare cases, lymphedema occurs without any outside of lymphedema. Most individuals have a cause for secondary lymphedema. Frequently, these cases are caused by cancer or radiation treatment for cancer. Surgery for cancer or tumor removals can also remove lymph nodes. If the body cannot make up for the lost nodes, it can lead to lymphedema. Infections can also cause lymphedema. In primary lymphedema, the disorder is caused by Milroy’s Disease and Meige’s Disease.

How are Lymphedema and Water Retention Related?

Lymphedema essentially is water retention. When the lymph nodes cannot function correctly, they allow fluid to build up within the tissue. If the lymphedema is not cured, the water retention will remain. In addition, untreated lymphedema can be more difficult to treat or cure.

How can Lymphedema be Treated?

Lymphedema treatment depends on how severe each individual case is. For basic treatments, individuals can just follow daily regimens and use compression garments. Physical therapy or lymphatic massage may be prescribed in severe cases. Certain bandages or garments can help contain lymphatic problems and reduce edema. Some doctors may also prescribe treatment with a sequential gradient pump therapy. This motion helps lymph fluid to move and forces it to drain out of the tissue. For more severe cases, surgery may be required. Doctors may also use lymphatic graphing to take other lymph nodes and graft them onto the affected area.

Lymphedema can be a serious medical condition. In addition to causing cosmetic problems, it can create a great deal of pain and discomfort. To receive proper treatment, individuals should schedule a visit with their medical practitioner.

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Melissa Feldman

Melissa Feldman is an independent research writer living in Toronto, Canada. She has professional experience as a researcher, and educa

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