Obesity is the most common chronic medical condition in the Western world and studies are finding new conditions that are often worsened by obesity. According to the National Institutes of Health, morbid obesity may considerably reduce life expectancy and is associated with an increased risk of developing conditions or diseases such as Type 2 diabetes, stroke, hypertension and sleep apnea. Now new research may tie obesity with an increased risk of another health condition: leg lymphedema. Researchers reported in the New England Journal of Medicine that obesity is a risk factor for lymphedema if Body Mass Index (BMI) is greater than 60.
The National Lymphedema Network describes lymphedema as an accumulation of fluid that causes swelling, most often in the arms or legs. It can develop when lymphatic vessels are missing or impaired (known as primary), or when lymph vessels are damaged or lymph nodes removed (known as secondary). The accumulation and blockage prevent lymph fluid from draining well, and as this fluid builds up, the swelling continues. Carrying excess weight seems to only be associated with lymphedema in the legs, not the arms, but the researchers indicated a need to investigate further. Lymphedema in the legs presents itself as swelling, pain, discomfort, tightness in the skin, decreased flexibility and difficulty walking. Cathy Kleinman-Barnett, a lymphedema specialist at the Lymphedema/Edema Management Program at Northwest Medical Center in Margate, Fl. explained in the article that “obesity causes lymphedema because the sheer additional weight puts too much pressure on the lymph nodes in the groin area, compromising the system. This causes a fluid backup like a clogged drain. Skin can thicken, harden and become red, dry and warm to touch.” While there is no cure for lymphedema, there are treatments to reduce swelling and to keep pain to a minimum. The Mayo Clinic lists the most common treatments as compression of the swollen limb, light exercise and massage. The researchers reported that major weight loss, such as after bariatric surgery, may improve the condition in obese patients.