Saturday, April 01, 2006

Acute-Onset versus Insidious-Onset Lymphedema

Secondary lymphedema may be categorized by its chronicity. Four patterns of acute lymphedema have been identified. The first occurs within a few days after surgery as a result of the cutting of lymphatic channels or injury to or manipulation of the subclavian lymphatic trunks or the associated subclavian veins. It is usually transient and mild, responding to limb elevation and muscle pumping of the associated limbs (e.g., making a fist and releasing it) within 1 week of onset. The affected area may be warm and slightly erythematous, but it is generally not painful.

A second type of acute lymphedema may occur within 6 to 8 weeks postoperatively, possibly as a result of acute lymphangitis or phlebitis. There is no associated venous thrombosis in these cases. This pattern of lymphedema may also be seen during the course of radiation treatment of a limb or its associated lymphatic drainage route. The affected area is tender, warm or hot, and erythematous. This type of lymphedema can usually be successfully treated with limb elevation and anti-inflammatory medication, although more involved treatments may be necessary. The first 2 acute forms do not necessarily portend chronic swelling after their resolution.

A third type of acute lymphedema is an erysipeloid form, occurring after an insect bite, or minor injury or burn. It is often superimposed on a chronic edematous limb. The affected area is erythematous, very tender and hot. This form of edema often requires limb elevation and antibiotics. Compression pumping or wrapping is contraindicated during acute stages of infection. Many clinicians will permit treatment once severe erythema or blistering has resolved. Mild erythema can persist following an infection.

The fourth and most common type of lymphedema is usually insidious and is not always associated with erythema. Discomfort of the skin or aching in the proximal segments (neck/shoulders for upper extremity, lumbar spine/hips for lower extremity) may be noted due to stretch of the soft tissues or muscular overuse and postural changes caused by increased limb weight. This type has a variable onset and is frequently apparent 18 to 24 months after surgery. It may appear a few months or many years after cancer treatment.

Lymphedema -

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