What is the lymphatic system?

The lymphatic system is a component of the circulatory system and the immune system.  It is composed of a network of vessels that transport lymph fluid.  The lymphatic vessels transport the fluid initially to the lymph nodes where the fluid is filtered and cleansed before returning to the blood stream for recirculation. The lymph nodes also produce white blood cells which fight infection.

What is lymph fluid?


Lymph is fluid that has been drawn into the lymphatic vessels from interstitial space.  Interstitial space is the space between cells where protein rich fluid naturally accumulates.   This fluid is outside the cells and the blood stream and is returned to the circulatory system via the lymphatic system.

What is lymphedema?


Lymphedema is swelling, usually in the extremities that result from an impaired lymphatic system.  The lymphatic system is unable to maintain equilibrium in fluid transport which allows the fluid to accumulate.  It is classified as primary and secondary lymphedema. Primary lymphedema is swelling associated with an abnormal or poorly functioning lymphatic system. Lymphedema that results from lymph node removal or radiation therapy is known as secondary lymphedema.


How do I recognize lymphedema?

The following signs can be indicators that lymphedema is developing. You should contact your doctor if you feel that you may be developing lymphedema. Early signs to look for are:[1]


  • Tightness, swelling or thickening anywhere in the extremity.  Initially the swelling may fluctuate but overtime it worsens.


  • A burning or tingling sensation radiating down the extremity.
  • A feeling of heaviness or aching of the extremity.
  • Inability to wear rings, jewelry, watches or clothing secondary to swelling.

How do I manage lymphedema once I have it?


Lymphedema management, commonly called Decongestive Lymphedema Therapy, is a comprehensive service provided by appropriately trained physical therapists.  The physical therapist will equip the individual with lymphedema with proven principles and skills for long term management. Essential components of lymphedema management include:

  • Risk reduction education
  • Skin care education
  • Lymphedema drainage exercises
  • Manual lymphatic drainage techniques
  • Compression bandaging and use of compression garments

Management of lymphedema is an important and essential process for anyone who has lymphedema.  Untreated lymphedema presents additional health risks of possible and potentially serious infection and impaired healing in the affected structures.  Call or see your doctor if you are concerned that you may have lymphedema to initiate appropriate treatment.

[1] North American Seminars, Inc., Lymphedema Management of the Upper and Lower Extremities.  Instructed by Elizabeth Augustine, PT, DPT