Edema and lymphedema both involve swelling, but these conditions have very different causes and are treated differently.
Edema is swelling caused by fluid trapped in your body’s tissues. It’s the body’s normal response to an injury. Bumping into something or even a sprain can cause additional tissue fluid to come into the area to help with healing. As healing progresses, the excess fluid leaves the area and the swelling goes down.
It can also be caused by circulatory system problems such as chronic venous insufficiency, congestive heart failure, and deep vein thrombosis. This swelling usually occurs in the lower limbs of the body and if the underlying problem is treated, the edema will resolve.
Edema swelling does not leave a mark when a finger is pressed into it and is known as non-pitting edema. Some causes of edema can be relieved with diuretics, also known as water pills. These medications help your body get rid of excess water and sodium (salt). Other types of edema will resolve on their own over time, such as swelling after an ankle sprain.
Lymphedema is an abnormal condition that occurs when the lymphatic system is impaired. The amount of lymphatic fluid in a given area is greater than the lymphatic transport system’s capacity to remove it. This causes the area to swell due to the excess lymph fluid trapped in the tissues. The swelling responds to injury with slow healing and/or a potentially serious infection.
Lymphedema commonly occurs after cancer treatment. Surgery that removes lymph nodes and/or radiation can damage the lymphatic system and block fluid drainage which creates swelling. The effects might be seen weeks or even years after initial treatment. Not all people will develop lymphedema after being treated for cancer. Talk to your doctor about your risks and how to prevent lymphedema symptoms.
In the early stage, lymphedema swelling leaves a mark when the finger is pressed into the skin. This is known as pitting edema. Lymphedema is harmed, not helped, by the use of diuretics. Instead, common forms of treatment include manual lymphatic drainage and compression therapy.
Read more about lymphedema management.
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