What is genital lymphedema?

Genital lymphedema is a buildup of fluid that causes swelling in the soft tissues of the genital area. Lymphedema is due to blockage in or damage to the lymph system. This condition can affect both males and females.

What parts of the lymph system are involved in genital lymphedema?

  • Lymph: A clear to slightly yellowish fluid that delivers immune system cells (white blood cells) to the bloodstream. Lymph removes bacteria and certain proteins from the blood. It also circulates fat from the small intestine.
  • Lymph vessels: Thin tubes that carry lymph throughout the body and return it to the bloodstream through a large vein near the heart.
  • Lymph nodes: Small, bean-shaped structures store white blood cells and filter lymph. They are found all along the lymph system but in greater number under the arms and in the pelvis, groin, neck, and abdomen.

What are the two types of genital lymphedema?

  • Primary: This type is a result of abnormal development of the lymphatic system. Symptoms may occur at birth or years later.
  • Secondary: This type is caused by something outside the person’s body. Causes include:
    • Treatment (surgery or radiation) of malignant tumors in the genital region, such as the prostate, bladder, testicles, penis, cervix, ovaries, vulva, or rectum
    • Surgical removal of lymph nodes
    • Long-term infections of lymph nodes and vessels from bacteria, viruses, fungi, or threadlike worms called filarial
    • Injuries
    • Sexually transmitted diseases
  • The less common causes of secondary genital lymphedema include:
    • Crohn’s disease (irritation, swelling, or inflammation of the intestines)
    • Sarcoidosis (lesions on the lymph nodes)
    • Vasculitis (inflammation of lymph vessels)
    • Rosacea (chronic skin inflammation)
    • Lymphadenitis (inflammation of lymph nodes)

What causes genital lymphedema?

When the lymph system is operating normally, it circulates lymph throughout the body via a series of vessels and ducts. After that, it returns lymph to the bloodstream. A blockage or breakdown in this system in the genital area can lead to leakage of lymph into the surrounding soft tissue.

What are the symptoms of genital lymphedema?

  • In men there is swelling and pain in the penis, scrotum, or both. There may also be generalized lymphedema in the lower limbs.
  • In women there is pain and swelling in the pelvis and labia. There may also be generalized lymphedema in the lower limbs.
  • In both sexes, the following are symptoms:
    • Trouble with urination
    • Infections
    • Thickening or hardening of the skin
    • Trouble with sexual function
    • Overall decline in quality of life due to pain during urination, when moving that, and during sexual intercourse.

What are possible complications of genital lymphedema?

  • Repeated bouts of cellulitis (inflammation of connective tissue) are common and can result in disfigurement and loss of elasticity in the skin.
  • Elephantiasis (a condition in which the skin becomes extremely enlarged, thickened, and hardened) can develop in advanced cases.
  • Erysipelas (a bacterial infection marked by fever and inflammation of the skin and underlying tissue) also can develop.