The Four Stages of Lymphedema Explained

Without treatment, lymphedema is a progressive condition, meaning that it can get worse over time. When diagnosed, your healthcare provider will most likely categorize the stage of lymphedema according to severity from early (Stage 1) to severe (Stage 4).

In this post, we'll take a look at the four stages of lymphedema and what to expect from each stage. If you or someone you know is living with lymphedema, understanding the stages can help you build a treatment plan and make managing the condition easier. 

What is Lymphedema?

Lymphedema is a condition caused by the build-up of lymph fluid in the tissues. It most commonly causes leg and arm swelling, but can also occur in other parts of the body.

Lymphedema can be caused by cancer treatments that damage or remove your lymph nodes or by injury, infection, or some other cause.

The most common symptom of lymphedema is swelling that gets worse over time. This leads to other problems that, if not treated, can eventually lead to disability.

That's why it's important to understand the stages of lymphedema and seek treatment early. Here are the four stages of lymphedema and the symptoms associated with each one.

The Stages of Lymphedema

Stage 1: Subclinical Lymphedema

Subclinical lymphedema is the earliest stage of the condition and is often not noticeable. In this stage, there is a build-up of lymph fluid in the tissues but no visible swelling. Although there are no outward signs, subclinical lymphedema can be detected using special instruments that measure tissue changes.

Stage 2: Mild Lymphedema

During this early stage of lymphedema, you may experience occasional swelling in your affected limb or area. The swelling may go away on its own or after elevation and rest. This stage is often diagnosed when lymph fluid begins to build up and cause mild discomfort.

Stage 3: Moderate Lymphedema

At this stage, the lymph fluid buildup becomes more constant, and you may notice swelling that doesn't go away with elevation or rest. The skin in the affected area may feel tight and uncomfortable, and you may experience pain, heaviness, tingling, or fatigue.

Stage 4: Severe Lymphedema

In the severe stage of lymphedema, the swelling is constant and can be painful. The skin in the affected area may be thickened and hard to the touch. This stage can also lead to serious infections, known as cellulitis, that require hospitalization. In some cases, advanced lymphedema can lead to disability. The skin becomes susceptible to deep, poorly healing wounds like venous leg ulcers, and is in danger of infection.

If you or someone you know is living with lymphedema, it's important to seek treatment as soon as possible. Early diagnosis and treatment can help prevent the condition from progressing to a more severe stage. 

Treatment for Lymphedema

There are a variety of treatment options available for all stages of lymphedema. Depending on the severity of your condition, you may need to see a lymphedema therapist, physician, or surgeon.

Your treatment plan will likely include some combination of the following:

  • Compression therapy: Wearing compression garments or wraps, like the Aero-Wrap™ compression system to help reduce swelling
  • Compression pump: Using a machine that automatically applies and removes compression to your limb on a timed schedule to help reduce swelling
  • Manual lymphatic drainage: A special type of massage that helps move lymph fluid out of the affected area
  • Exercise: Gentle exercises to help move lymph fluid and reduce stiffness
  • Skincare: Specialized skincare to help prevent infection
  • Weight management: Maintaining a healthy weight to reduce stress on your lymphatic system

If you or someone you know is living with lymphedema, it's important to seek treatment as soon as possible. Early diagnosis and treatment can help prevent the condition from progressing to a more severe stage. 

compression wrap for lymphedema
Aero-Wrap™ uses air inflation for compression, making it easy to apply and adjust measurable gradient, inelastic compression. Simply place Aero-Wrap™ on the lower leg, inflate to desired compression level, and remove the pump to enjoy all day, comfortable compression, without struggling with tight, pinching elastic materials or fabrics that loosen over time.

Learn more about Aero-Wrap™ compression therapy products here.

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