Lymphedema, a condition that happens when lymph fluid builds up in your body too quickly, can be a result of obesity.

A body mass index (BMI) of 30 or greater qualifies a person as having obesity. More than 40% of U.S. adults fall into this category.

Lymphedema is a condition that happens when your body accumulates lymph fluid faster than it can drain it. This can lead to swelling and discomfort and make it difficult for you to move around. Lymphedema can be challenging to treat and sometimes leads to severe complications.

Some people are born with lymphedema (in that case, it’s called primary lymphedema), but you can also develop it later in life (secondary lymphedema). People with obesity are at risk of developing obesity-induced lymphedema.

Let’s take a closer look at the connection between obesity and lymphedema.

Your lymphatic system is in charge of circulating lymph fluid throughout your body and then funneling it back into your bloodstream. Lymph fluid is a watery substance that contains the white blood cells your body uses to fight infections and disease.

Your lymph nodes are a part of your lymphatic system, as are your tonsils, spleen, bone marrow, and other specialized tissues.

Injury or damage to this system can cause blockages that prevent lymph from circulating properly. Instead of being absorbed by your lymph nodes, the fluid builds up in other parts of your body.

Lymphedema can be a genetic condition. It is also associated with complications from cancer or cancer treatment and with obesity.

When lymphedema is associated with obesity, it’s called obesity-induced lymphedema.

The most common symptom of lymphedema is swelling. You may experience swelling in any part of your body, but it often occurs in extremities (your hands, feet, arms, and legs).

The swelling can be asymmetrical — for example, it may affect only one arm or leg.

Swelling may also occur in the following areas of your body:

  • genitals
  • groin
  • face
  • neck
  • mouth
  • breast
  • chest
  • shoulder
  • pelvis

In obesity-induced lymphedema, swelling most often affects your legs and feet.

Parts of your body with swelling might feel full or heavy, and you may experience discomfort, such as aching or tingling sensations, in those areas. Also, your skin may feel tighter in those areas, and this might affect your range of motion.

Over time, the swelling associated with obesity-induced lymphedema can become quite severe. These images of people with obesity-induced lymphedema might be helpful for understanding what this type of swelling looks like.

The exact link between obesity and lymphedema isn’t fully understood.

Obesity can increase stress on the various systems in your body and has been linked to an increased risk of many health conditions, including heart disease, stroke, and certain cancers.

While the exact mechanism is still being researched, experts generally agree that obesity can strain your lymphatic system. This can reduce its function and, in some cases, damage it to the point that lymphedema sets in.

Obesity-induced lymphedema can lead to a variety of complications.

Because your lymphatic system is involved in protecting your body from infections, a damaged lymphatic system can lead to an increased risk of bacterial and fungal infections, including cellulitis.

Lymphedema is also associated with more severe complications such as blood clots and lymphangiosarcoma, a rare form of cancer.

Obesity-induced lymphedema — especially when it affects your legs — can make it more difficult for you to walk or move around, significantly limiting your mobility.

In most cases, a doctor can diagnose obesity-induced lymphedema after reviewing your medical history and completing a physical exam.

If the cause of your swelling is unclear, your doctor might order blood or urine tests, but these are not always necessary.

You might also undergo imaging tests, which can help your doctor confirm the diagnosis and determine the extent of the condition. These tests can also help your doctor find signs of potential complications. Your doctor might order the following imaging tests:

The primary treatment for obesity-induced lymphedema is weight loss. This can help slow or stop the progression of the swelling.

However, weight loss can be complicated by the fact that the swelling can make it difficult to move around.

Surgical options may help reduce some symptoms of obesity-induced lymphedema, but obesity is also associated with an increased risk of surgical complications. Therefore, surgeons usually recommend losing weight to lower your BMI to a certain threshold before they attempt surgery.

Lymphedema does not have a cure. Its progression can be slowed or even stopped, but at this time it can’t be fully reversed.

The long-term outlook for obesity-induced lymphedema is usually better if you’re able to quickly and consistently treat the condition.

You may still have some questions about obesity-induced lymphedema. Here are some of the most common questions.

How does obesity cause lymphedema?

Experts still aren’t sure exactly how obesity causes lymphedema, but they have noted that obesity-induced lymphedema frequently causes swelling of the lower extremities.

Can lymphedema be cured by weight loss?

Lymphedema does not have a cure, but weight loss can help slow or even stop its progression. In some cases, weight loss might help reverse some of the symptoms.

Once your lymphatic system is damaged, it might not be possible for it to fully recover.

Why is it hard to lose weight with lymphedema?

Lymphedema can change the way your body processes, stores, and uses fat and may naturally lead to weight gain. Additionally, the swelling and stiffening associated with lymphedema can limit your mobility and make exercise more difficult.

Lymphedema is a type of swelling that occurs when your lymphatic system stops working as expected. It causes a bodily fluid called lymph to build up in your tissues, especially your extremities.

Obesity-induced lymphedema can occur in people with a BMI of 30 or greater and tends to be associated with swelling of the legs.

Obesity-induced lymphedema is a chronic condition and can have severe complications. If you have this condition, the sooner you can start treatment, the better your outlook may be.