Tips & Tricks

Lymphedema vs Edema

When I was in treatment for my eating disorder, the doctors warned me that I may experience edema as a side effect of the “re-feeding process,” meaning I may have some swelling in addition to the chronic swelling I already had with lymphedema. I was scared, because I thought it would permanently affect my leg – both of them, even – and make things worse. I didn’t realize at the time that edema and lymphedema aren’t necessarily overlapping conditions.

So what exactly delineates the two? Both lymphedema and edema are conditions that involve swelling, but they have different causes and therefore need different treatment. 

Check out this chart from LymphNotes.com:

          EDEMA     LYMPHEDEMA
Edema is the body’s normal response to an injury such as a sprain. As healing progresses, the excess fluid leaves the area and the swelling goes down. Lymphedema is condition that occurs when the lymphatic system is impaired to the extent that the amount of lymphatic fluid within a given area exceeds the capacity of the lymphatic transport system to remove it.
Edema is usually caused by excess tissue fluid that had not yet returned to the circulatory system. Lymphedema is swelling caused by excess protein-rich lymph trapped within the tissues.
Edema due to an injury, such as bumping into something, is caused by additional tissue fluid coming into the area to help with healing. Lymphedema  impaired tissues respond to injury with slow healing and/or a potentially serious infection.
Edema is also caused by circulatory system problems, such as chronic venous insufficiency, and this swelling usually occurs in the lower areas of the body. Lymphedema  is caused by damage to the lymphatic system and this swelling occurs near the affected area.
Edema swelling does not leave a mark when a finger is pressed into it. This is known as nonpitting edema. Lymphedema  swelling leaves a mark when a finger is pressed into it. This is known as pitting edema. This occurs only in the early stages of lymphedema.
Edema due to some causes can be relieved with diuretics. Lymphedema is harmed, not helped, by treatment with diuretics.

Chart above is credited to LymphNotes.com.

22 comments on “Lymphedema vs Edema

  1. Elizabeth

    Thanks for posting this. It makes a lot of sense and will help explaining the swelling that is unique to lymphedema. Thanks!

  2. Thank you for posting this, your site is very informative and inspirational. Best of luck with your treatment!

  3. This is an important distinction, thank you Alexa for posting this info.

    I was told recently that if one’s swelling in one’s legs goes down dramatically from the time that person went to bed and elevated his/her legs then, it’s probably not Lymphedema. It could mean that the person has Edema (swelling) due to Venous Insuffiency.

    One difference between Edema and Lymphedema I believe, is that Lymphatic System filters out fluid contains both proteins and toxins, whereas the Circulatory System would just filter out toxins.

    Because I’ve had Lymphedema for 28 years in my left leg and 10 years, I had recurrences of Cellulitis and I’m not sure that people with Edema would be as susceptible to getting that infection aas people with Lymphedema.

    • Those are all good points; edema is temporary whereas lymphedema is chronic.

      • Physiologist

        Technically edema can be chronic. The difference is lymphedema is constant swelling just because Edema is not constant swelling would not mean that it would not fall under the category of chronic depending on the condition and the severity. Many people can experience chronically.

  4. Jennifer

    My dr said she thought I had lymphedema. I finally made it to see a physical therapist for drainage massage and he said he thinks its edema. I am so confused. I have had cellulittus twice now . How do I know who to trust and how to know which is correct? I am 33 obese and this has been going on about 5 months,

    • now a days a PT can have more understanding of the body than an MD.. Especially if the PT specializes in complete decongestive therapy. However, if it has been going on that long, it may be lymphedema. If there was pitting edema (dr pokes at the site and a pit mark/indent is left behind for a few seconds) then it is lymphedema. if non-pitting, edema.

    • Lipo survivor

      You could have both. Seek third opinion go to a good private practice. Lose weight, it helps many problems.

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  6. Helen France

    Helpful but s there any treatment for Lymphedema, please? Helen France.

  7. You are very wrong to say edema is non pitting.

    • You are so right, Andy. This article is extremely misleading. Edema can definitely be pitting.

  8. My podiatrist tells me it’s lymphedema, my primary doc says edema. My left ankle has always become swollen by the end of the day, and it’s getting more pronounced as I age. Now my right ankle is swelling, too. My mother had painful swelling in her ankles for most of her life. I think it’s genetic and therefore lymphedema. Wearing support hose for moderate support and keeping my feet elevated both help. What’s the verdict – edema? Lymphedema? And does it matter?

    • Hi, Samantha,
      Sorry to hear you’re having trouble getting a straight diagnosis – it can be confusing to get conflicting opinions! It’s important to know whether it’s edema or lymphedema, however, as that will inform what the appropriate treatment would be (over the counter compression vs custom fit compression, dietary changes, etc.); although edema and lymphedema are very similar in how they manifest physically, they have different causes, and that’s what the specific treatments address.

      From what you described, it sounds like you may have edema since the swelling is more pronounced at the end of the day rather than a constant swelling. That being said, I’m not a doctor, so I fully support you in finding a lymphedema therapist that can help diagnose you properly and get you the appropriate treatment – and relief!! :)

      Here are some links that might help:
      -Finding a Therapist: https://www.thelymphielife.com/2016/03/05/world-lymphedema-day-series-finding-a-therapist/
      -Types of Treatment Options: https://thelymphielife.com/2016/03/01/world-lymphedema-day-series-treatment-management-precautions/

      Hope that helps!

      Best of luck,

  9. Informative article. Lymphedema is also called lymphatic obstruction, is swelling of tissues due to the collection excess fluid called lymph in tissues. You can also refer my blog with some helpful information at http://www.vascularcarecenter.com/diseases/lymphedema-2/

  10. RobinLiberty

    I was recently diagnosed by a lymphedema specialist as having both lymphedema and edema in both of my legs. I had breast cancer that had spread to every lymphnode in my arm on that side. I had 6 months of chemo and 32 radiation treatments. Could this be related to the lymphedema in my legs? Is it unusual to have both edema and lymphedema at the same time?

    • Jane Sabatino

      I have lymphedama in both legs due to cancer surgery. I have also had edema since I was 20, probably due to heredity. I had cellulitis in one leg and skin cancer in the other. I quit wearing compression hose. I am allergic to latex. I found what helps is a diet high in protein, especially fish. And meals with tomato sauce also helps and also Noni!

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