Causes and Diagnosis of Lymphedema

Causes of Lymphedema

The causes of lymphedema are divided into primary and secondary.
In Hong Kong, most patients belong to the secondary lymphedema. The most common causes of secondary lymphedema are malignancy and its treatment.
Breast cancer, gynecological cancer (such as cervical cancer, uterine cancer, ovarian cancer, etc.) and their treatment can cause upper and lower extremity lymphedema, respectively.


Taking breast cancer as an example, a patient with breast cancer may undergo a mastectomy and axillary lymphadenectomy. Electrotherapy is often used following the surgery. These treatments (surgery and electrotherapy) destroy the lymphatic tissue in the armpits, causing lymphatic obstruction and edema. Since lymphatic tissue does not regenerate after being damaged, lymphedema is incurable, but with the right treatment, it can be controlled.

Other relatively rare causes of lymphedema include primary lymphedema and filariasis. Filariasis only occurs in tropical and subtropical regions. It spreads from person to person by mosquitoes.

Diagnosis of Lymphedema

Generally speaking, secondary lymphedema can be diagnosed clinically, that is related to cancer history and corresponding clinical features. On the contrary, if primary lymphedema is suspected, the patient needs to undergo some tests, such as lymphography, computed tomography scan, etc.

Watch the Founder of Hong Kong Lymphedema Association Dr. Lawrence Hin-Lun LIU interview:

(Source: Hong Kong Lymphedema Association)

廖軒麟醫生 Dr. Lawrence Hin-Lun LIU

Dr. Lawrence Hin-Lun LIU

Founder of Hong Kong Lymphedema Association
Specialist in Plastic Surgery

Honorary Clinical Associate Professor, Department of Surgery, HKU
FHKAM (Surgery)

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