Obesity is a common condition that results in excessive fat accumulation in the body. Obesity is a significant risk factor for many conditions, including lymphedema.

Body mass index (BMI) is a tool that helps estimate and screen obesity in adults and children. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), people have obesity if their BMI is 30 and more.

According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), more than 2 in 5 adults have obesity, and approximately 1 in 11 adults have severe obesity.

Researchers have recently indicated that obesity is a significant risk factor for developing lymphedema.

In lymphedema, protein-rich fluid builds up in the body because the lymphatic system is not working as it should. This can result in swelling and discomfort that typically occurs in the legs or arms.

This article discusses whether obesity leads to lymphedema, the symptoms of lymphedema, complications, and its treatment.

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Lymphedema is a condition that occurs due to a blockage or damage to the lymphatic system. The lymphatic system allows a fluid called lymph to circulate through the body via a network of vessels. It is a part of the immune system and is vital in fighting disease.

Several factors might lead to the development of lymphedema. A prominent risk factor is obesity.

According to a 2023 study, obesity is closely linked to lymphedema since it can alter lymphatic functioning.

A 2020 study indicates that obesity can cause inflammation in the lymphatic system. This reduces the flow of lymph through the vessels and can cause the lymphatic vessels to leak. This can lead to lymphatic dysfunction and, ultimately, lymphedema.

Another 2016 study reports that obesity-induced lymphedema can develop in the lower part of the body if an individual has a BMI that exceeds 50 and in the upper parts of the body if the BMI exceeds 80.

Lymphedema in people with obesity can significantly affect their quality of life.

Read more about lymphedema risk factors and causes.

It is important to understand the symptoms of lymphedema for proper diagnosis and treatment.

A few common symptoms of lymphedema include:

  • swelling in a part of the body, primarily arms or legs
  • tightening and hardening of the skin
  • tingling, numbness, or discomfort in the area
  • reduced flexibility in the nearby joints
  • itching in the affected area
  • feeling heavy in the affected area, along with aching
  • recurrent skin infections
  • development of wart-like growths on the skin
  • difficulty fitting into clothing and jewelry

Learn about the symptoms of lymphedema.

People with obesity are at a higher risk of developing other health complications, such as:

Severe cases of lymphedema can also lead to certain complications, such as:

People with advanced lymphedema that does not respond to treatment might require surgical treatments.

Learn more about the facts and figures behind obesity.

The initial treatment of obesity-related lymphedema is similar to the traditional lymphedema treatment methods. Doctors recommend compression garments and pneumatic compression to help the fluid move out of the affected area and prevent its accumulation.

People with obesity-related lymphedema need to carry out exercises as a part of their treatment since it will help them to lower their BMI and help transport the lymphatic fluid.

Surgical procedures, such as excisional procedures, can sometimes help lymphedema.

Doctors often recommend people with obesity-related lymphedema visit a bariatric weight loss center for surgical weight loss. This is because many people with obesity may find it difficult to lose weight through diet and exercise alone.

Following weight loss, doctors may remove redundant skin and a small area of localized lymphedema. This helps to lower the risk of complications and recurrence.

Learn about possible treatments for obesity.

The following are some questions people frequently ask about obesity and lymphedema.

Will losing weight help with lymphedema?

Losing weight is an effective treatment option for lymphedema. Doctors may recommend surgical weight loss procedures for people with obesity who find it difficult to lose weight through diet and exercise alone.

Why is it hard to lose weight with lymphedema?

Lymphedema leads to fluid buildup or edema in the body. This, in turn, causes an increase in fibrosis and deposition of fatty tissue, making it difficult for people with lymphedema to lose weight.

Lymphedema is a condition that results from fluid buildup in any part of the body due to improper functioning of the lymphatic system. Recent research highlights obesity to be a major risk factor for the development of lymphedema.

Obesity-related lymphedema can develop in the lower part of the body as well as the upper part of the body, depending on the BMI of the person. Both obesity and lymphedema can lead to several complications.

People with obesity with symptoms of lymphedema should consult a healthcare professional for early diagnosis and treatment of the condition.