Lymphedema of the arm and/or breast is commonly associated with breast cancer surgery and/or radiation therapy for breast cancer. Surgery that involves removal of the lymph nodes under the arm (axillary dissection) can cause lymphedema because of the mechanical disruption of fluid flow within the arm. In other words, if a person were to get an infection or undergo mechanical compression of the arm, usually the arm is able to accommodate the infection or compression by using the lymphatic channels to drain away the infection or fluid that can accumulate. After an axillary dissection, the lymphatic channels are absent and cannot drain away the infection or fluid so it backs up into the arm or breast, causing swelling and/ pain. The same mechanical event occurs after radiation therapy to the axilla.
Lymphedema is the accumulation of fluid within the tissues of the body that can cause swelling, pain and limited range of motion. Lymphedema occurs when the lymphatic channels have been disrupted by such events as surgery, radiation treatments, and infection.
Signs of lymphedema of an extremity are swelling, redness of the skin, blotchy skin, tight fitting jewelry without any corresponding weight gain. Breast edema is usually a firm, enlarged breast. In the past, lymphedema was an untreatable event that caused significant morbidity with pain. Currently, however, if lymphedema is diagnosed early, it can be treated and even reversed.
Treatment depends primarily on the cause of the lymphedema and involves antibiotics, compression devices, physical therapy. The best prevention, however, is to avoid the causes – infections, compression of the extremity, injury. If lymphedema is diagnosed, early intervention is important.