Differential diagnosis, investigation, and current treatment of lower limb lymphedema

Arch Surg. 2003 Feb;138(2):152-61. doi: 10.1001/archsurg.138.2.152.


Hypothesis: The causes and management of lower limb lymphedema in the Western population are different from those in the developing world.

Objective: To look at the differential diagnosis, methods of investigation, and available treatments for lower limb lymphedema in the West.

Data source: A PubMed search was conducted for the years 1980-2002 with the keyword "lymphedema." English language and human subject abstracts only were analyzed, and only those articles dealing with lower limb lymphedema were further reviewed. Other articles were extracted from cross-referencing.

Results: Four hundred twenty-five review articles pertaining to lymphedema were initially examined. This review summarizes the findings of relevant articles along with our own practice regarding the management of lymphedema.

Conclusions: The common differential diagnosis in Western patients with lower limb swelling is secondary lymphedema, venous disease, lipedema, and adverse reaction to ipsilateral limb surgery. Lymphedema can be confirmed by a lymphoscintigram, computed tomography, magnetic resonance imaging, or ultrasound. The lymphatic anatomy is demonstrated with lymphoscintigraphy, which is particularly indicated if surgical intervention is being considered. The treatment of choice for lymphedema is multidisciplinary. In the first instance, combined physical therapy should be commenced (complete decongestive therapy), with surgery reserved for a small number of cases.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Diagnosis, Differential
  • Diagnostic Imaging
  • Hot Temperature / therapeutic use
  • Humans
  • Leg
  • Lipomatosis / diagnosis
  • Lymphedema* / diagnosis
  • Lymphedema* / etiology
  • Lymphedema* / surgery
  • Lymphedema* / therapy
  • Massage
  • Physical Examination
  • Pressure
  • Venous Thrombosis / diagnosis