Lymphedema is swelling of the extremities due to excessive fluid buildup in the tissues, says MedicineNet. The condition results from the lymphatic system failing to maintain proper flow of lymph fluid, and the swelling can be mild or severe. Lymphedema most commonly affects a single arm or leg, but in rare circumstances, the swelling occurs on both sides. As of 2015, there is no cure for lymphedema, but treatment with compression and physical therapy may provide relief.
Mild lymphedema often causes a feeling of heaviness, warmth or tightness in the affected area, and there may not be noticeable swelling at this stage, explains MedicineNet. There may be slight puffiness, redness, reduced flexibility or tightness of clothing or jewelry on the extremity. All of these symptoms may continue as the lymphedema grows more severe, but the swelling increases substantially and may become debilitating. The added weight of the swollen area may cause fatigue and an inability to maintain physical activity.
In severe cases, lymphedema suppresses immune system function in the affected area, which can lead to infections or the development of malignant tumors. Patients with lymphedema must constantly watch the area for signs of infection, which requires immediate treatment in order to prevent infection of the bloodstream, warns MedicineNet. Other dangers are cellulitis, which is inflammation of the skin and connective tissue, and deep vein thrombosis, or blood clots, in the deeper veins of the extremity.