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Lymphedema is an accumulation of intercellular fluid that causes swelling in the arms and legs.  Edema occurs when venous or lymphatic vessels, or both, are impaired.  When the impairment is so great that the intercellular fluid exceeds the lymphatic transport capacity, an abnormal amount of protein-rich fluid collects in the tissues of the extremity.  Untreated, this stagnant, protein-rich fluid not only causes tissue channels to increase in size and number, but also reduces oxygen through the transport system, interferes with wound healing, and provides a culture medium for bacteria that can result in various infections.  A chronic inflammatory condition stemming from this accumulation of fluid eventually results in fibrotic tissues.

To understand the condition called lymphedema, we first must understand the normal lymphatic system.  Consisting of lymph vessels, nodes, and lymphoid tissues, the lymphatic system is part of the circulatory system of veins and arteries.  The important role of the lymphatic system is to remove impurities from the body’s tissue through the circulatory system and to produce cells of the immune system (lymphocytes) that are vital in fighting bacteria and viruses.  These important lymphocytes, produced in the lymphatic system, mostly in the spleen, are a crucial part of the immune system.

Lymph vessels are channels that contain colorless fluid called lymph. The lymph comprises white blood cells and waste products from tissue.  Lymph fluid passes through the nodes, or valves, located in the lymph channels at 1cm to 2 cm intervals.  As the fluid passes through the nodes, it is purified of harmful bacteria and viruses. 


Networks of the lymphatic system are situated in several areas of the body:

  • The Neck (supraclavicular)
  • Behind the abdominal wall (retroperitoneal)
  • Along the wind pipe (trachea)
  • Adjacent to the lung (thoracic)
  • Near the intestine (abdominal)
  • The armpits (axilla)
  • The pelvic area
  • The groin (inguinal)

Lymphoid tissue is found in other areas of the body as well, including the tonsils, spleen, intestinal wall, and bone marrow. 

Learn more about Lymphedema care