Lymphatic obstruction is a blockage of the lymph vessels that drain fluid from tissues throughout the body and allow immune cells to travel where they are needed. Lymphatic obstruction may cause lymphedema, which means swelling due to a blockage of the lymph passages.
The most common reason for lymphatic obstruction is the removal or enlargement of the lymph nodes.
Causes of lymphatic obstruction include:
- Infections with parasites such as filariasis
- Radiation therapy
- Skin infections such as cellulitis (more common in obese patients)
A common cause of lymphedema is removal of the breast (mastectomy) and underarm lymph tissue for breast cancer. This causes lymphedema of the arm in some patients, because the lymphatic drainage of the arm passes through the armpit (axilla).
Rare forms of lymphedema that are present from birth (congenital) may result from problems in the development of the lymphatic vessels.
The main symptom is persistent (chronic) swelling, usually of the arm or leg.
Treatment for lymphedema includes:
- Compression (usually with wrapping in bandages)
- Manual lymph drainage (MLD)
- Range of motion exercises
Manual lymph drainage is a light massage therapy technique. During massage, the skin is moved in certain directions based on the structure of the lymphatic system. This helps the lymph fluid drain through the proper channels.
Treatment also includes skin care to prevent injuries, infection, and skin breakdown. Light exercise and movement programs may also be prescribed. Wearing compression garments on the affected area or using a pneumatic compression pump may be helpful. Your doctor and physical therapist will decide which compression methods are best.
Surgery is used in some cases, but it has limited success. The surgeon must have a lot of experience with this type of procedure. You will still need physical therapy after surgery to reduce lymphedema.
Types of surgery include:
- Removal of abnormal lymphatic tissue
- Transplant of normal lymphatic tissues to areas with abnormal lymphatic drainage (less common)
In rare cases, surgery to bypass abnormal lymph tissue using vein grafts is done. These procedures are not usually successful and are often done experimentally.
Lymphedema is a chronic disease that usually requires lifelong management. In some cases, lymphedema improves with time. Some swelling is usually permanent.
In addition to swelling, the most common complications include:
- Chronic wounds and ulcers
- Skin breakdown
- Cancer of the lymph tissue (rare)
When to Contact a Medical Professional
See your doctor if you have swelling of your arms, legs, or lymph nodes that does not go away.
Most surgeons now use a technique called sentinel lymph node sampling to reduce your risk of lymphedema after breast cancer surgery. However, this technique is not always appropriate or effective.
Kurklinsky AK, Rooke TW. Lymphedema. In: Moore WS, ed. Vascular and Endovascular Surgery. 8th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2013:chap 53.
Lee RE, Micali G, Schwartz RA. Lymphedema. In: Lebwohl MG, Heymann WR, Berth-Jones J, Coulson I, eds. Treatment of Skin Disease: Comprehensive Therapeutic Strategies. 4th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2013:chap 138.
Strick D. Lymphedema. In: Stanley JC, Veith FJ, Wakefield TW, eds. Current Therapy in Vascular and Endovascular Surgery. 5th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2014.
Review Date 1/18/2015
Updated by: Laura J. Martin, MD, MPH, ABIM Board Certified in Internal Medicine and Hospice and Palliative Medicine, Atlanta, GA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.