What is genital lymphedema?

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Humans are a creature that is built with a body that contains many organs and structures that enable humans to survive and live. Each part of the human body plays its own role in a person’s daily life. One of the body parts, which is genital, is always connected with the reproductive function. Female and male will have different genitals as both have their own reproductive system. In this DoctorOnCall’s article, we will learn about a condition that affects the genitals, which is genital lymphedema.

Genital lymphedema is a condition where there is swelling to the genital area due to the blockage or disruption to the lymphatic drainage system. To better understand this, knowing a bit more on lymph itself can help us understand more on genital lymphedema. Lymph is a fluid in the body which is clear to white in colour. It is mainly made up of white blood cells and chyle (fats and protein from the intestine). The lymph system consists of numerous vessels and nodes that collect and filter excess lymph. There are a number of organs involved with the lymph system including tonsils, thymus, bone marrow, spleen and lymph nodes. This system keeps the body fluid in check and plays a part in the immune system.

Lymphedema is the result of the interrupted lymphatic drainage that lead to build up of excess fluid. This means that genital lymphedema describe the condition where the excess fluid is located in the genital area. There are a number of causes that contribute to lymphedema such as blockage or disruption to the lymphatic flow by surgical removal of lymph nodes, infection, tumour from cancer and radiotherapy. It may also be caused by the congenital disorders to the lymphatic system. Uncommon causes includes pregnancy, long distance cycling, hormonal therapies, sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), Crohn’s disease and skin infection such as hidradenitis suppurativa.

Genital lymphedema can be divided into types which are primary and secondary. Primary genital lymphedema is often associated with swelling in other areas of the body such as the leg or feet. Secondary genital lymphedema is often the result from health conditions such as infection from filariasis, cancer treatment, swelling in area near the genital, trauma, obesity or surgeries to the lower trunk and/or genitals such as hysterectomy. Knowing the types of genital lymphedema can help healthcare professionals to plan for proper treatment and best suited for patients.

Symptoms of genital lymphedema for both male and females are similar. In male, the swelling can be seen in portions of the penis (male sexual and urination organ), scrotum (bag of skin holding the testicles) or even both. Certain cases may be seen with penis buried within the swelling scrotum. Pain can be felt in certain cases apart from the swelling. In female, swelling can be seen in the labia (skin folds around vaginal opening), vulva (global term describing structures of the outside of genitals), clitoris (bits of flesh near the vulva) and/or the perineal tissue (tissue in the region between the anus and vulva). The swelling may be seen in one side of the genital in females such as only one labium. Swelling and pain may be present in the pelvis and labia. Both female and male may be presented with swelling to other structures nearby such as the anus, inner thigh, buttocks and lower abdomen. Beside pain and swelling being the symptoms, symptoms such as bowel dysfunction, urinary dysfunction, skin breakdown, wound and frequent cellulitis (skin infection) can occur.

Due to the fact that symptoms can be a great distress to a person’s life and pose difficulty to ensure the hygiene of the area, getting the right treatment can greatly alleviate the pain and worries. Treatment with manual lymphatic drainage and simple lymphatic drainage are among the common treatments proven to ease symptoms. These may also be done by patients themselves after their healthcare provider guides them. Compression to the genital region such as compression garments like shorts or underwear can be helpful. Medical taping is another way to reduce lymphedema. Surgery may be recommended in severe cases or repeated episodes of genital lymphedema.

Apart from treatment from medical personnels, patients are encouraged to keep good hygiene and practise a healthy skin care routine.  This includes ensuring the genital area is clean and dry, avoiding using toiletries or skin products to the genital area that is harsh or causing dryness and addressing infection as early as possible. Practising safe and hygienic sex is important to ensure the genital area is not easily affected by diseases such as infection that can cause frequent genital lymphedema.

It can be concluded that genital lymphedema is a condition where swelling to the genital area is blocked or disrupted of the lymphatic system. It can be caused by many health conditions. Both male and female can be affected but females are most likely to not be diagnosed properly due to the symptoms not obvious.