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Lymphedema vs. Edema

Is There Any Correlation With Rheumatoid Arthritis?


Updated June 27, 2014

Question: Lymphedema vs. Edema - Is There Any Correlation With Rheumatoid Arthritis?

What is the difference between edema and lymphedema? How are they the same? How are they different? How do they relate to rheumatic diseases? How should the conditions be treated? Are these problems common with rheumatoid arthritis?


What Is Lymphedema?

The lymphatic circulation is involved in the absorption of fluid in the body and in the response to infection. Lymphedema develops from damage to or obstruction of the lymphatic capillaries. While some people develop this condition during childhood due to a genetic abnormality, it generally is an acquired problem.

Infection is the most common cause of this problem, but some develop it as a result of tumors. In addition, both surgery and radiation therapy for breast cancer and pelvic cancers may cause lymphedema of the upper extremity and lower extremities respectively. It is typically a painless condition, but discomfort may occur.

Radiographic studies such as an ultrasound, CT scan or MRI may have value in the diagnosis of this condition. The following may help with lymphatic drainage:

  • elevation of the affected extremity
  • compression hose
  • physical activity
  • massage

What Is Edema?

Edema (swelling) is defined as an increase in tissue fluid. Edema may be due to:

  • congestive heart failure
  • protein deficiency
  • obstruction of blood vessels

Patients with rheumatoid arthritis may develop edema from medications such as nonsterioidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS).

In addition, they may develop an inflammatory induced edema. It is typically non-pitting (i.e. it does not leave an indentation when you press on it), localized and associated with other components of inflammation such as:

  • redness
  • heat
  • tenderness

Answer provided by Scott J. Zashin, M.D., clinical assistant professor at University of Texas Southwestern Medical School, Division of Rheumatology, in Dallas, Texas. Dr. Zashin is also an attending physician at Presbyterian Hospitals of Dallas and Plano. He is a fellow of the American College of Physicians and the American College of Rheumatology and a member of the American Medical Association. Dr. Zashin is author of Arthritis Without Pain - The Miracle of Anti-TNF Blockers and co-author of Natural Arthritis Treatment.

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