James M. Salander, MD, FACS
Vascular Surgery and Varicose Vein Treatment


5513 Connecticut Ave. Suite 210
Washington, DC 20015
Phone: 202-966-1228
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Swelling and Lymphedema

Swelling of limbs is due to build-up of lymphatic fluid. This is sometimes referred to as lymphedema. The lymphatic system carries a clear yellow fluid throughout the body. This is the same fluid that collects in a burn blister or that makes your thumb swell if you hit it with a hammer. The circulation of this fluid can be impaired by surgery, radiation, or infection (secondary lymphedema). An example of this is a swollen arm that is a result of treatment for breast cancer. Extremities can also swell due to congenital problems in the formation of the collecting system (primary lymphedema). Swelling in either case is called lymphedema. The symptoms include enlargement of part or all of the extremity, ache, heaviness, leakage of fluid directly out of the skin (weeping), or recurrent skin infections.

Swelling is often caused by dietary issues, activity, and obesity. When the swelling builds up, it pushes on small skin nerves, and this can cause pain and burning. When it pushes on the small oil glands of the skin, those glands work poorly. The skin becomes dry and cracked and causes itching and burning. If the skin becomes infected, it is called cellulitis and can develop into open sores.

How can you prevent problems from swelling and lymphedema?

  • Adopt a low sodium diet
  • Increase water intake
  • Walk regularly for exercise
  • Elevate legs
  • Use skin lotion to prevent dryness
  • Use support stockings
  • Lose weight
  • Wear protective, well fitting shoes
  • Don't scratch
  • Don't rub swollen legs in the shower or bath
  • Avoid antibacterial soaps
  • Keep up personnel hygiene
  • Contact your doctor at the first sign of problems - do not delay!

What parts of the body can be affected?

  • Legs, ankle, and feet
  • Arms and hands

What are the symptoms and findings of swelling and lymphedema?

  • Dry, cracked skin
  • Swelling
  • Skin infection
  • Cellulitis (infection)
  • Open wounds
  • Weeping of clear fluid
  • Ache
  • Discomfort
  • Discoloration
  • Numbness
  • Tingling

What tests may be ordered?

  • Ultrasound
  • CT Scan

What treatments are available?

  • Patient education
  • Dietary changes
  • Exercise
  • Lifestyle changes
  • Skin lotions
  • Support stockings