Lymphoedema is oedema of the lymphatic system that develops spontaneously (primary lymphoedema) or following damage to the lymph nodes (secondary lymphoedema) after cancer surgery, for example. Lymphoedema can progress to become serious. Early diagnosis is necessary to make it easier to manage and prevent complications.
It is a chronic disease related to poor function of the lymphatic system (network of vessels and nodes filtering lymph or lymphatic fluid). Lymphoedema occurs when the circulation of this fluid – which normally circulates between the body’s cells and tissues, draining nutrients, lipids, water and metabolic waste – becomes blocked or slowed down. When this “purification” system is obstructed, the lymphatic fluid builds up in the tissues under the skin causing swelling, which remains painless, as well as heaviness and the loss of mobility of part of the body.
The natural course of lymphoedema comprises 3 stages:
Stage 1: localised to one limb, the oedema (colourless, volume increase of less than 20% compared to the healthy limb) may reduce slightly when the limb is elevated.
Stage 2: extending over the entire limb and permanent, the oedema (volume increase of between 20 and 40%) leads to swelling of the limb with the development of creases or folds and changes to the skin (thickening) and subcutaneous tissue (hardening).
Stage 3: very severe stage, characterised by a particularly enlarged limb (volume increase of more than 40%), which is decreasingly mobile, and accompanied by dermatological complications (development of blisters, “elephant skin”, etc.)
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