Lymphedema is chronic swelling, typically of the arms or legs, resulting from the accumulation of lymph fluid. It occurs when there is a block in the lymphatic system that prevents proper drainage of lymph fluid.

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

Common symptoms of lymphedema:

  • Swelling of part or all of the arm, leg or other part of the body
  • Feeling of heaviness or 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. It 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

Our surgeons and occupational and physical therapists work together to develop a comprehensive treatment plan for each patient. Find more lymphedema treatment options here.

What are modern surgical options?

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. Along with liposuction, we offer:

Vascularized lymph node transfer
This procedure involves transplanting a lymph node from another part of the body to the affected area. This replacement lymph node can take over the task of filtering and directing the flow of lymphatic fluid, which can help relieve retention and swelling.

Lymphovenous bypass
This microsurgical technique involves rerouting the lymphatic fluid that is causing the swelling. The surgeon connects lymph vessels in the affected area to blood vessels, giving the excess fluid a new pathway to flow out.

Ketan Patel, MD, is an Associate Professor, Founder and Director of the Center for Advanced Lymphedema Treatment and Surgery and specializes in advanced surgical techniques related to breast reconstruction and lymphedema surgery. He is the co-editor of one of the first textbooks on lymphedema surgery, Principles and Practice of Lymphedema Surgery. He has written more than 100 peer-reviewed manuscripts and book chapters on plastic surgery and lymphedema surgery techniques and speaks internationally on the subject.

Joseph N. Carey, MD is an Assistant Professor of clinical surgery and Program Director for the plastic surgery residency program at USC.  He specializes in complex reconstructive surgery and microsurgery.  He has particular expertise in treating genital lymphedema utilizing grafts and vascularized tissue to restore the normal function and contour the genital region.