One Leg Bigger Than the Other
Painless swelling of the feet and legs is a fairly regular occurrence. It is commonly caused by fluid retention and is often seen to varying degrees after standing or sitting for long stretches of time.
Swelling due to fluid retention – a medical condition known as edema – can occur when blood pools in the legs due to a problem with your veins or circulation. It can also occur due to the buildup of lymph fluid, a condition known as lymphedema.
Meet Your Lymphatic System
The lymphatic system is part of your circulatory system. It is a network of glands (lymph nodes), vessels, and organs located throughout the body. It serves an important immune system function, as well as helps remove cellular waste and maintain proper blood volume and pressure.
The lymphatic vessels are similar to your veins. Only, instead of carrying blood, lymphatic vessels transport lymph fluid – excess fluid that naturally drains out of cells and tissue in the body – away from bodily tissue toward the lymph nodes, where the fluid is filtered before being transported back into your bloodstream. You have hundreds of lymph nodes in various places in your body, including in your armpits, neck, and groin.
What Is Lymphedema?
Lymphedema – swelling caused by lymph fluid buildup – may be caused by a blockage in the lymphatic system or when lymph nodes are removed (as may be done as a part of cancer treatment).
Lymphedema is most commonly seen in the arms or legs. It is what can cause one leg to swell and become larger than the other. Lymphedema symptoms can range from mild to severe. At its worst, it can cause disfiguration and leave a person susceptible to deadly skin infections.
Lymphedema is a chronic condition that tends to recur over time.
Signs & Symptoms of Lymphedema
If you have lymphedema, it is likely you will not experience pain in a specific area. Rather, if there is any discomfort felt at all, it tends to be a sensation of general achiness rather than localized pain. The symptoms you experience may come and go but can persist over time without intervention.
Common signs and symptoms of lymphedema include:
- Swelling in just one leg, often including the toes
- Restricted movement
- Tightness or aching
- Hardening or thickening of the skin
- Recurrent infections
What helps to distinguish lymphedema from deep vein thrombosis (DVT), which can also cause swelling in just one leg, is that lymphedema tends to swell large portions of the leg and foot, including the toes. Swelling due to DVT does not typically affect the toes.
Stages of Lymphedema
Left untreated, lymphedema will progress through the following stages of development:
There is no obvious sign of swelling, and no physical change has occurred because your body is compensating for the decrease in circulating lymph fluid.
Swelling is apparent, but no damage has been done to the body yet.
The skin of the affected leg has thickened and hardened (meaning fibrosis has occurred), although surgery can repair the condition of the skin.
Significant, disfiguring skin thickness and scarring has occurred.
If you believe you may have lymphedema, see your doctor or a vascular surgeon experienced in treating the condition, such as Dr. Edward G. Mackay at Edward G. Mackay and Associates, LLC in Tampa Bay, Florida.
Unless the underlying cause of a patient’s symptoms is addressed, lymphedema may continue to recur – in which case, ongoing measures to reduce the swelling will be necessary to prevent the condition from worsening. For example, if lymphedema is caused by a faulty lymphatic vessel, treatment aimed at rerouting lymph fluid through nearby functioning lymphatic vessels may offer the best chance at long-term relief. Periodic monitoring by your doctor can ensure the condition remains in check.
In the vast majority of lymphedema cases, however, conservative approaches that don’t involve surgery are the treatment of choice.
Your treatment options for lymphedema may include:
- Compression – The use of bandages or specialized compression garments can help push fluid out of the leg and reduce swelling.
- Massage – Specialty massages can be performed to stimulate the lymphatic system to remove excess lymph fluid.
- Movement – Certain exercises cause the muscles to compress the lymphatic ducts and stimulate movement of fluid.
- Low-level laser therapy – A noninvasive therapeutic approach that can help break down scar tissue to relieve symptoms such as skin tightness and restricted movement. It is also believed to aid the flow of lymph fluid.
- Vein ablation – This minimally invasive procedure can help seal off a faulty lymphatic vessel. Ask Dr. Mackay whether you are a candidate for this type of treatment approach.
- Other surgical options – Surgery or liposuction to remove excess tissue may be recommended in severe cases. Lymphovenous bypass and lymphatic reconstruction surgeries are other surgical options your doctor may recommend.
See a Vascular Surgeon in Tampa Bay for Lymphedema Treatment
Does one of your legs swell up periodically – so that there is a significant difference between the appearance of your legs?
Board-certified vascular surgeon Dr. Edward G. Mackay at Edward G. Mackay and Associates, LLC in Tampa Bay, Florida, specializes in diagnosing and treating lymphedema – when swelling is due to a buildup of lymph fluid in your legs – as well as a host of other venous diseases.
Call the vein experts at Edward G. Mackay and Associates, LLC today at (727) 781-5652 to find out more. You can also request an appointment to visit us at one of our three convenient locations along the west coast of Florida: in Palm Harbor, St. Petersburg, or Largo.