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USC Surgery / Conditions / Lymphedema

Lymphedema is a painful swelling in the limbs that is caused by the lymph nodes not properly facilitating drainage of lymph fluid. It can be either congenital (primary) or secondary, caused by infection, trauma or cancer treatment.

It is a common condition following the removal of lymph nodes or use of radiation during cancer treatment and can occur months or years later. Though less common, lymphedema also can arise from inherited conditions that create problems with the development of lymph vessels.

Common symptoms of lymphedema include:

  • Swelling of part of all of the arm, leg or other part of the body
  • Feeling of heaviness of tightness of the skin
  • Hardening of the skin
  • Limited range of motion or difficulty performing normal activities due to discomfort
  • Recurring infections of the skin

Possible complications from untreated lymphedema include:

  • Serious bacterial infections of the skin
  • Infection of the lymph vessels
  • In rare cases, a type of soft tissue cancer

What are the treatment options?

There is no cure for lymphedema, and treatment varies from patient to patient. Treatment often involves physical therapy to manage the symptoms and improve mobility. Other treatments are geared toward keeping the lymph fluid moving.

  • Use of compression sleeves or garments
  • Mild exercises to induce drainage
  • Manual drainage
  • Pneumatic pumps to drain fluid

What are modern surgical options?

Keck Medicine of USC is one of the few places in the world to employ innovative surgical procedures that may be effective for many patients to help reduce the swelling, pain and discomfort that occurs with lymphedema. We perform lymphovenous bypass, vascularized lymph node transfers as well as liposuction to remove fluid and fat from affected areas.

Combining classic therapies with cutting-edge surgical techniques is one way Keck Medicine of USC helps patients with lymphedema maximize the relief of symptoms related to this condition.

Keck Medicine of USC is the University of Southern California’s medical enterprise, one of only two university-owned academic medical centers in the Los Angeles area.