If your legs regularly feel heavy or achy and you have other symptoms such as leg swelling, lymphedema in the legs may be to blame. A buildup of lymph fluid, lymphedema is uncomfortable and can be chronic. Many cases are caused by cancer surgery or radiation, but a form of leg lymphedema called phlebolymphedema is caused by poor leg circulation.
What is leg lymphedema?
To understand lymphedema, first understand lymph fluid. It delivers nutrients to cells and tissues throughout the body via lymph vessels. It also collects their excess fluid and moves it back into the bloodstream. In lymphedema, parts of the lymphatic system are damaged or blocked, causing lymphatic fluid to accumulate, typically in one arm or leg. A form of lymphedema that stems from vein problems, called phlebolymphedema, usually affects both sides of the body.
What is phlebolymphedema?
Circulation problems in the venous system (veins) can affect the lymphatic system, and vice versa. In phlebolymphedema, also called venous lymphedema, the lymph system is damaged by severe chronic venous insufficiency (CVI).
In CVI, blood pools in the leg vein due to faulty one-one valves. That pooled blood increases pressure in the vein, causing fluid to leak out and build up in the space between the veins and the cells. This fluid is normally carried away by lymph vessels, but over time it overwhelms those vessels, damaging them. The result: Fluids from both the venous system and lymphatic system accumulate in the leg, causing symptoms such as:
- Leg swelling, which may be mild at first and gradually becomes severe
- A feeling of fullness or heaviness in the leg
- Leg aching
- Thick, leathery skin
- Puffiness and redness of the skin
- Burning or itching
- Tight or inflexible joints
- Inability to see or feel the veins or tendons in the feet
Anyone who has deep vein thrombosis (DVT), which is caused by a blood clot, is also vulnerable to phlebolymphedema.
Lymphedema vs. venous insufficiency
Venous insufficiency and lymphedema are somewhat similar: Both are the result of poor drainage—of pooled blood in the first case and lymph fluid in the second. In phlebolymphedema, circulation problems in one system affect the other.
Leg lymphedema treatment
Regardless of what’s triggering your leg swelling, it’s important to see a doctor right away to avoid complications, some of which may be life-threatening, and to prevent the lymph system from being damaged beyond repair.
Make an appointment to visit one of the vein care providers at the Water’s Edge Dermatology Vein Center. Our specialists are experts at diagnosing phlebolymphedema and other vein-related conditions and can provide several types of treatments to help you feel better.
Since many of the symptoms of CVI, DVT and lymphedema are similar, certain treatments can help improve all three. For example, wearing prescription compression socks or stockings can improve blood and lymphatic fluid circulation. Your doctor may also recommend getting more exercise, regularly elevating your legs and avoiding crossing your legs.
For leg lymphedema, the doctor may refer you to a healthcare practitioner trained in lymphatic drainage massage to help move the fluid out of your legs.
Our Vein Center doctors can also ease leg heaviness and leg swelling with a minimally invasive procedure to close faulty veins, which stops the cycle of damage. They can close the veins using radiofrequency ablation (heat in the form of radio waves) or endovenous laser treatment (heat produced by light), or by injecting a glue-like substance called VenaSeal or an irritant solution (sclerosant). Once the faulty veins are closed, the body naturally reroutes the blood through nearby healthy veins.
Don’t wait for phlebolymphedema symptoms to resolve on their own, as there’s a good chance they won’t. Make an appointment today.
If you are experiencing any issues with your legs and would like to be examined by a vein specialist, call (877) 900-3223 today to schedule your consultation.