So What Causes Lymphoedema?
As mentioned in previous blogs, lymphoedema is caused by an impaired lymph system which leads to a disruption in lymph flow. The triggers which cause the damage to the lymph system can be placed into two broad categories: primary lymphoedema and secondary lymphoedema.
Primary lymphoedema occurs without any warning and without interference from an outside source. When this is the case, the lymph system normally has functional damage which hampers its ability to perform correctly. As there is no stimulus which can be linked to causing this type of lymphoedema, it is thought to have a genetic cause. The way this works is the ‘faulty’ genes cause parts of the lymph system, which are responsible for fluid drainage, to either not develop properly or not function as they should.
Secondary lymphoedema occurs when there is an outside source to the lymph system which prevents it from functioning properly. There are various different risk factors for this, as explained below:
Cancer treatment is a common risk factor of secondary lymphoedema. When surgery takes place, sections of our lymph system are often removed, which can impair its function. After cancer treatment there is a particular risk of lymphoedema occurring when the lymph glands are removed.
Radiotherapy is a type of cancer treatment which uses controlled doses of high energy radiation to destroy cancerous tissue. When this happens, there is a risk of damage to healthy tissue. If this occurs in the lymph system, it could lead to permanent damage and lymphoedema.
Immobility or lack of physical activity are risk factors, as movement is essential to regulate the lymph system. When people’s movement is significantly reduced, their risk of lymphoedema increases as the tissues require muscle activity to help move the fluid within the lymph vessels.
Bacterial infection in the lymph vessels or skin can damage the lymph system, disrupting lymph flow, which increase the risk. A downward spiral can quickly develop as the infection causes lymphoedema, which leads to further infections such as cellulitis, beginning a cycle of making the lymphoedema worse.
Obesity is a risk factor due to the extra fatty tissue affecting the lymph vessels in some way. It’s not completely clear why, but it is believed the lymph flow is obstructed.
Venous diseases affect the flow of blood through the veins which can lead to an overflow of fluid into the tissue spaces. Deep vein thrombosis (DVT) is when a blood clot causes fluid to leak into tissues which can eventually overwhelm the lymph system. DVT can be caused by limited movement, which again highlights the importance of movement in the prevention and treatment of lymphoedema. Varicose veins occur when blood drainage from the vein is poor which leads to an increased pressure and consequently fluid overflow into the surrounding tissues.
Lipoedema appears to be an underlying cause of lymphoedema. The fat deposits in limbs due to lipoedema are thought to place increased stress on the lymphatic vessels. Lipoedema is often associated with a reduction in movement, as discussed in our previous blog ‘What is Lipoedema?’. This in turn can increase the risk of lymphoedema.
Whilst lymphoedema can’t always be prevented, learning how to keep moving in a way that works for you can help you manage the condition and alleviate your symptoms. At LymphActiv we work hard to help you discover the value of movement in your daily routine, giving you accessible choices to keep active, and helping you to take back control of your health!
The LymphActiv Team