This is a 7-minute read.
Many people who are newly diagnosed with lymphedema are surprised to discover how at-risk they were for the disease. A patient often possesses an array of lymphedema risk factors without even realizing it.
There are approximately over 250 million people worldwide living with lymphedema and millions more undiagnosed, so it’s clear that this is a pressing issue that needs more attention. Below are some of the most common lymphedema risk factors doctors and patients should know about.
Infections and Injuries to the Upper Body
Any type of infection or injury can set the stage for lymphedema. Most commonly, trauma to the hands, arms, and shoulders is associated with lymphedema.
Why does this happen? It boils down to a dysfunction in the body’s capacity to cope with a foreign invader. An infection or injury spurs increased fluids to be delivered to the site of the crisis. This puts an extra strain on a lymphatic system that may or may not be able to keep up.
Even surgery is a type of trauma that can cause lymphedema. The surgery itself can be the trigger or a secondary infection could lead to lymphedema. For example, a surgical wound might fail to close properly, become infected, cause a body-wide infection, and trigger early-stage lymphedema.
One of the world’s biggest risk factors for the development of lymphedema is undergoing cancer treatment including radiation and chemotherapy. After cancer therapy, patients should always be advised that they’re now at a higher risk of lymphedema due to the disturbance to their lymphatic system.
The removal of lymph nodes during breast cancer treatment can set off the development of lymphedema. Research shows that the more underarm lymph nodes someone has removed, the more lymphedema risk they have.
Being Overweight or Obese
Clinical obesity is a major risk factor for developing secondary lymphedema. When the body has extra fat deposits, the fatty tissue requires extra effort from the body’s systems to deliver nutrients and oxygen.
As the lymphatic system struggles to manage the body’s fluid levels due to the impact of obesity, lymphedema can develop. This is most likely in obese women with a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or greater, although an overweight BMI of 25 to 29.9 also brings added risk.
Traveling with existing lymphedema may worsen swelling and pain, but there is no clear evidence that airplane travel is a direct cause of lymphedema in those who would otherwise not develop it. Talk to your doctor before traveling.
Current or Previous Intravenous Drug Use
Someone who currently uses or has previously used intravenous drugs is at a higher risk of developing lymphedema. Intravenous drug use interferes with the body’s lymphatic system and puts stress on the lymph nodes.
Plus, intravenous drug use introduces the constant risk of infection from the open wounds of needle injection sites. This risk is especially high in intravenous drug users who share needles.
Chronic Venous Insufficiency
Chronic venous insufficiency and phlebolymphedema are risk factors for lymphedema. These vein disorders involve fluid flow disturbances that are related to abnormal lymph function.
Excessive or Chronic Swelling and Inflammation
Sometimes, patients report excessive swelling, inflammation, and pain that is of unknown etiology, where its exact cause is not clear. The patient might report no previous infections, trauma, surgeries, or other causes that help identify the root of the disorder.
This could be primary lymphedema. Or it could be secondary lymphedema with an as-yet-unknown or unrecognized cause. In any case, chronic inflammation should always be evaluated by a doctor as a potential sign of lymphedema.
Finally, a family history of lymphedema is considered a lymphedema risk factor due to the impact of hereditary gene mutations. This includes undiagnosed lymphedema, meaning it’s important to research any family history of excessive swelling, chronic inflammation, or non-healing wounds.
Having lymphedema risk factors doesn’t guarantee someone will develop lymphedema, but it should cause them to seek a proper evaluation. Catching lymphedema at its earliest possible stage presents the best opportunity for effective treatment.
For More Information About Lymphedema
If you’re a lymphedema professional or patient, please take a look at the innovative therapy options from Lympha Press. We’re dedicated to providing lymphedema education and equipment that helps people thrive while living with lymphedema.