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Obesity and Lymphedema

One of the most common clinical findings in patients with obesity is swelling of the lower extremities due to accumulation of fluid.

This is not only cosmetically bothersome to patients but also carries the risk of infection and skin changes.

In the vast majority of cases, this accumulation is benign and can be dealt with by simple physical measures – however, in rare cases it may be the expression of true lymphedema – a more persistent and far more difficult to treat condition.

True lymphedema can be diagnosed by lymphoscinitgraphy, which must show imparied lymphatic function.

In a letter published in the New England Journal of Medicine, Arin Greene and colleagues from Children’s Boston Hospital, describe a series of 15 obese patients presenting with bilateral lower-extremity enlargement (12 women).

All underwent lymphoscintigraphy, which revealed pathological findings consistent with lymphedema in 5 patients – the other 10 had normal results.

Interestingly, the average BMI of those with true lymphedema was around 70 compared to the average BMI of those with normal findings. All patients with lymphedema had a BMI greater than 59 whereas all patients with a BMI less than 54 had normal findings.

This strongly suggests that severe obesity is likely to be an important risk factor for lymphedema and that, as the authors discuss, there may be a threshold of BMI above which lymphatic flow becomes impaired. This could be either due to a change in lymph production (load) or lymphatic function (clearance) – the latter may result from dysfunctional lymphatics due to either local compression through fat mass or inflammation. On the other hand, increased lymph production from an expanding limb may overwhelm lymphatic capacity.

Whatever the cause, the question is whether or not this process can be reversed by weight loss – surprisingly enough the medical literature appears to be rather sparse on this issue.

I wonder if any of my readers have noted reversal of true lymphedema following significant weight loss – surgically or otherwise.

Edmonton, Alberta

ResearchBlogging.orgGreene AK, Grant FD, & Slavin SA (2012). Lower-extremity lymphedema and elevated body-mass index. The New England journal of medicine, 366 (22), 2136-7 PMID: 22646649



  1. Very interesting as always, thanks Dr. Sharma

    I was obese as a teenager and but have mainly been in the 23 – 27 BMI range most of my adult life (am now 40). However I experience lymphedema sporadically and have wondered why – doctor’s checks did not identify a cause – although I didn’t get as far as being tested for this (I’m in the UK so it would need to be more severe than it is to warrant investigation on the NHS!). I’ll be interested to hear other readers experiences of this too.

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  2. Yes, Arya, I had Lymphedema. My feet, ankles and lower extremities swelled up so much that I couldn’t even get my socks and shoes on anymore when I was at my heaviest body weight.

    With my weight loss of 216 lbs. over the past two years, the Lymphedema has completely gone away and my feet, ankles and lower extremities are completely “normal” again now.

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    • Wow, so happy for you!

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  3. I was obese as a teenager and have never lost weight; I’m still around the same size at 42, with a BMI in the mid-thirties. I’ve never had swelling of the ankles, let alone Lymphedema.

    (this is just to provide another fat-teenager-as-an-adult example.)

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  4. I don’t have an answer yet, but I plan on finding out. I’m about 6 feet tall and at my peak weight a few months ago I’m sure I a little over 500 lbs. I now have Lymphedema in a leg and my abdomen. I quit smoking almost a year ago now and in recent months have made numerous positive changes in the areas of diet and exercise. I will know the answer to this question one day.

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    • I hope you are doing well!! Hang in there!!

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  5. I have had this on and off. Related to food types. I was. Am obese. Was 25 stone legs and feet so swollen I couldn’t walk. Heathly food changed swelling in two weeks swelling had calmed dramatically. Now 3stone lighter. Still alot of weight to lose. Still a little swollen and I will have to be careful as I know eating the wrong food brings it back. ie a couple of meals containing processed foods and carbs. Exercise definitely increases swell. Eat fish fat vedge natural yoghurt fruits meat nuts all dairy anything thats pure. Nothing of carbs except vedge and fruits. Nothing thats processed as in fruit juice orsliced ham. Cook your own ham. This goes for all foods. Organic if poss. Exercise 10 mins only 2times aday to start with. The weight will soon come off. MSG foods are to blame. Not fatty foods! Once your susceptible a pure diet is needed probably for years even then I would be careful as to not let my body get so ill again. Now feelling better every day!
    Hope this helps.
    Doctors do not understand. Sadly!
    From the Uk. Emma 🙂

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  6. Forgot to mention not to exercise if feet are very painful concentrate on eating as healthy as poss and only exercise once your feet can cope. Only short mild walks and as your feet swell less more the exercise. Slowly catch monkey 🙂

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  7. Hi Emma,

    You have made my day. Had lymphodema for 13yrs, I am overweight but excercising and healthy eating is reducing the swelling bit by bit. Totally agree with your comments and glad I stumbled on your post.

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    • Any updates would be greatly appreciated?

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  8. Thanks Gillian,

    6 Months down the line now and I’ve introduced whole carbs on a small scale. Feet are not swelling! Legs are still discoloured and swollen but I still have all that weight to lose, been very naughty with diet and exercise over the last few months. Still trying to stick to gms free foods and white carb free which has stopped the swelling in feet. Think other swelling is only weight related.

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  9. My uncle is servely obese and has very bad lymphedema he has after lots of struggles got funding for an operation.
    I’m looking for a surgeon to perform this operation if anyone could help I’d be very greatful

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    • Hi Nicola,
      I know this is a pretty old post, but I was researching this topic to vaguely get an idea if lymphedema was always connected to morbidly obese patients. I was looking because I recently began watching TLCs show “My 600lb. Life” and all of those patients seem to have these huge lymphedema pockets that end up having to be removed. Obviously, this is a reality show so I am not giving any medical advice but you asked if anyone knew of a doctor who would do surgery for your uncle, the Dr on the TLC show specializes in gastric bypass surgery and does it on patients as high as 600 pounds. If they are over that he helps them lose the weight, but he also will not do the surgery without he himself being able to do the follow-ups so many of the patients move. It is Dr. Nowzaradan, in Houston Texas, even if your uncle can’t move maybe his office could recommend someone? Just a thought.

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      • hi there my uncle has been suffering with obesity he also suffers from lymphodema. We live in hawaii and there is no doctor that would do a surgery for my uncle. it breaks our whole families heart to see him suffer the way he do is there any way you can help me or at least point me in the right direction please???

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  10. I am overweight and have a BMI of 66. I know, sad. I don’t want to be this big. I try and try and try to diet. I lose some weight, then I eat again and gain it. I have been the same weight for about 8 years, so I’m not gaining more, but I desperately want to lose weight.
    I have some lymphadema in my legs. Some days my left leg is bigger, other days it is my right leg. I also have a large amount of lyphadema in my abdomen. When I lose about 20 lbs, the lymphadema in my abdomen gets soft. My legs also look smaller. But then when I gain weight it gets hard again.
    I am now down about 20 lbs and it is softer.

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