Oedema is the medical term for swelling, fluid retention or fluid in the tissues.
Oedema can affect people of all ages and any area of the body including arms, legs, abdomen, face, breast and genitals and has many causes including injury, reaction to medication or chronic medical conditions.
Oedema can be caused by genetic conditions (i.e. primary lymphoedema), radiation and surgical cancer therapies (i.e. secondary lymphoedema), sports injuries (ie traumatic oedema), older age, obesity, heart conditions, pregnancy and following surgical procedures such as hip and knee replacements, which may result in scarring.
The fluid known as "lymph" comes from the fluid that bathes every cell in our body enabling oxygen and nutrient uptake for metabolism, where it is known as "interstitial fluid" and comes mostly from veins and arteries.
Once this fluid enters the lymph vessels it becomes lymph and contains waste products of cellular metabolism along with other blood products which are removed by the one way lymphatic system to maintain a correct balance in the tissues, known as homoestasis.
Your lymphatic system is responsible for removing fluid from every part of your body, filtering the fluid through the lymph nodes and returning the fluid back to the blood circulatory system, maintaining the correct volume of blood in circulation. Another key functions of the lymphatic system is to destroy toxins and pathogens that cause infection and/or tissue distruction, as a vital part of our immunological system.
The lymph system is crucial in fighting off bacteria and viruses within the body, as well as cancer cells. It is also known to help ward off heart disease and arthritis. All of these properties together make the lymphatic system a major component of maintaining homeostasis within the body.
The filtering of all the fluid in the body in this way occurs approximately once a day.
All forms of oedema therefore involve the lymphatic system either by a dysfunction or an overload of the system.
Oedema can become a severe problem if it becomes chronic and uncontrolled.
Chronic Forms of Oedema
Lymphoedema is the regional accumulation of excessive amounts of protein-rich fluid in body tissue causing swelling. It occurs when the demand for lymphatic drainage exceeds the capacity of lymphatic circulation. The condition usually affects the limb/s, although it can also affect the trunk, breast, head and neck or genital area. Secondary lymphoedema can be acquired following surgery, radiotherapy, trauma or other damage to the lymphatic system following treatment for cancer. Secondary lymphoedema can develop at any time after surgery or radiotherapy.
Key risk factors include extent of surgery, lymph node dissection and radiation treatment. Other factors include trauma, infection, body mass index (BMI) and immobility.
Lipoedema is a chronic disorder of adipose (fat) tissue and lymphatic vessel dysfunction described as "a bilateral, symmetrical, flabby swelling of (mainly) the legs that arises from deposition of adipose tissue starting at the hips and ending at the ankles, like riding breeches" Földi, Etelka; Földi, Michael (May 14, 2012). Földi's Textbook of Lymphology: for Physicians and Lymphedema Therapists (3 ed.). Elsevier. p. 418
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