Lymphedema is the enlarging of a body part due to an accumulation of fluid, better known as lymph. This happens due to a break or injury to the lymphatic system either due to illness or genetic abnormality. While there can be an enlarging of the thorax, back, chest, most of the time, lymphedema is identified only when the upper or lower limb start to enlarge.
Lymphedema is caused by a break in the lymphatic system due to cancer, injury, surgery or genetic abnormalities.
Lymphedema has many side effects, most of them being at the skin level and at the lymph level; the first is at the level of the skin. When there has been swelling for a long period of time, the skin starts to adapt and stretch to accommodate this extra fluid. This stretching of the skin will create an area of lesser resistance for the fluid, so fluid will always gravitate to that area. After prolonged lymphedema, the consistency of the skin starts to change; it becomes more dry and scaly. Over time, it will also have patches of different colors, red, brown or white. These changes in the skin will make the skin more susceptible to bacterial infections such as cellulitis, which could be deadly if not treated promptly. Cellulitis is actually a vicious cycle in that cellulitis increases lymphedema levels, and lymphedema increases the chances of having cellulitis by at least 10 times.
Very severe and prolonged lymphedema might also cause the skin to create open sores in order to drain the lymph. These open sores will increase the chances of infections and are quite uncomfortable, as fluid will regularly leak out of the area.
The second side effect of prolonged lymphedema is the change in the lymph itself. The lymph will start out as being gel-like. If you press down on it, your finger will leave an indentation; this is referred to as pitting edema. Over time, if left untreated the gel-like consistency will change. In different areas of the swollen area can develop fibrosis, which is the hardening of the lymph. This will create more long-term side effects because it will further block the proper passage of the lymph.
Over very long periods of time if the lymph is left untreated, fat cells will develop in the area, which can prove to be dangerous. Fat cells are very highly vascularized, creating an environment, which promotes disease. Tumors can grow in the area, a very vicious form or cancer that is unfortunately untreatable.