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Lymphedema can occur from idiopathic, or unknown causes.  This is called Primary Lymphedema and has been known to affect from one to as many as four limbs.  Lymphedema can be present at birth from unknown causes, as noted, or associated with arterial-venous abnormalities (AV malformations) such as hemangioma, lymphangioma, Klippel Trenaury and Park-Weber syndrome.  These abnormalities can occur in either upper or lower extremities or other parts of the body. Primary lymphedema occurs in adolescents (lymphedema praecox), mostly in girls and usually in the lower extremities.  It can also occur in both male and female adults (lymphedema tarda) usually between the ages of 35 and 45 years, developing in one or both lower extremities.

Breast or abdominal surgery can result in Secondary Lymphedema. Surgical removal of a tumor and the adjacent lymph nodes and vessels can block lymph fluid from flowing naturally through this system.  Lymphedema can occur immediately in the post-surgical period or several years later.  Other surgeries that require lymph node removal are those performed for skin cancer (melanoma), gynecological cancers, bladder or colon cancer, and prostate or testicular cancer.

Radiation therapy, used in the treatment of various cancers and some AIDS-related diseases (such as Kaposi-Sarcoma), can damage otherwise healthy lymph nodes by causing scar tissue to form and, thus interrupt the normal pathway of the lymphatic fluid.  Furthermore, the radiation can cause a skin burn on the area being treated, which may initiate the onset of lymphedema.  It is important to monitor the area for any skin changes, such as inflammation or blistering.

Lymphedema can occur secondary to an infection that interrupts normal lymphatic pathway function.  A severe, traumatic injury may also trigger the onset of lymphedema.

Lymphedema is a possible complication following a mastectomy, caused by surgery or radiation treatments to lymph nodes.  As a result, the fluid from the lymph nodes circulates at a slower rate, impairing the body’s ability to fight infections. Not all women develop this complication, but if swelling should occur, it is important to notify your physician immediately and take special steps to prevent infection.