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Help For Persistent Or Recurring Swelling
by: Dr. Rita Louise
Like the arteries, veins and capillaries that transport blood through our bodies, our bodies also contains an extensive drainage system that returns water and proteins from our tissues back to the bloodstream. Called the lymphatic system, it is part of our immune system and works to defend the body from diseases caused by viruses, bacteria, or fungi.
The lymphatic system has two major functions. First, it works to regulate the amount of fluids within our bodies. Secondly, it is responsible for "taking out the trash", that is collecting waste products, such as dead blood cells and pathogens from the interstitial fluid (the fluid that fills the spaces around cells) and filters it before returning it to the bloodstream.
The lymphatic system is made up of lymph vessels that carry lymph, a protein-rich fluid that is transported through the lymph vessels, and lymph nodes which filter out germs and toxins. There are over 100 lymph nodes throughout the body, with the majority of them being located in the neck, groin and armpits. Lymphatic vessels contain valves that prevent the lymph from flowing backwards within the system. Within the lymphatic vessels, lymph is transported through the vessels and moves via the squeezing action of their neighboring skeletal muscles.
When the movement of lymph through the body becomes impaired, it will leak out of the lymphatic capillaries and cause the surrounding tissues to swell. This condition is called lymphedema. Lymphedema occurs when the amount of lymph fluid in the body exceeds the body's ability to transport it. This causes the lymph fluid to accumulate in the tissues, where it causes swelling, particularly of the arms and legs.
There are two types of lymphedema. Doctors don't know what causes Primary Lymphedema, but it can be present at birth, or can develop later on in life. Fortunately, this condition is rare. Secondary Lymphedema is a condition that is not often talked about, but often affects individuals who have undergone surgery, such as cancer surgery where lymph nodes are commonly removed. It can also affect individuals who have undergone radiation therapy, which can damage lymph nodes and cause scar tissue to form ultimately interfering with the flow of lymph. It can also be experienced by individuals who have experienced a severe trauma or infection.
In the initial stages of this chronic condition, Lymphedema often begins with swelling in a hand or foot, particularly the one closest to where the surgery has occurred or radiation therapy has taken place. If left unchecked, the protein-rich lymph can continue to accumulate, leading to increased swelling and a hardening of the tissues. This increases your risk of developing an infection or may interfere or impair the function of the limb.
Lymphedema can develop in any part of the body. If you experience persistent or recurring swelling anywhere in your body, it is important to seek medical advice. Early intervention with this disorder greatly improves the long term outcome of the disease's progression.
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