Malpractice Liability for Lymphadema After Surgery

Cancer patients and others are at risk for developing lymphedema after an operation. Can the doctor or hospital be held liable in a malpractice lawsuit?

There are innumerable complications that can occur after surgery. The body is in a vulnerable state, creating a situation that enables health problems to crop up. Post-surgery infection and blood clots are two of the more common post-operative complications. Lymphedema, while less common (it is seen most often in cancer patients) is a very serious complication that can lead to a lifetime of health issues. Read on to learn more about lymphedema after surgery, and whether it can give rise to a claim of medical malpractice.

What is Lymphedema?

Lymphedema is a condition that occurs with the lymphatic system becomes compromised. When the lymph nodes begin to malfunction, fluid that is normally transferred into the blood stream instead is re-circulated directly into organ tissue, causing swelling and placing the body at risk of infection. Signs of lymphedema can include fluid retention, fatigue and severe swelling. Skin may also become discolored or deformed. Left untreated, lymphedema can lead to elephantiasis.

Lymphedema most commonly occurs in one of your arms or legs. In rarer cases, both arms or both legs may be affected.

Causes

Lymphedema is either hereditary or caused by damage to -- or removal of -- lymph nodes. Unfortunately, cancer patients run a relatively high risk of lymphedema because damage to the lymphatic system is a known side effect of radiation therapy.

Surgical procedures have also been known to trigger lymphedema. Procedures where lymph nodes are removed as a means of gauging success -- such as mastectomies, when lymph nodes from the arm are removed and tested for the presence of cancer -- are particularly high risk.

Lymph node removal causes the remaining lymphatic system to attempt to compensate for the lymph nodes that were removed. If, for some reason, your remaining lymph nodes are unable to compensate, fluid will begin to build up and lymphedema may result. Damage, too, may trigger lymphedema. Scarred or inflamed lymph nodes may malfunction or cease to function altogether.

Cancer itself can block lymphatic vessels, greatly increasing the potential for lymphedema. Tumors growing in the area of lymph nodes or lymph vessels can restrict or block the flow of fluid through the lymphatic system. Similarly, an infection can do the same thing, creating a vicious cycle. Some parasites found in subtropical or developing regions can block lymph nodes and trigger lymphedema as well.

Treatment

Lymphedema is an incurable condition, but it is treatable through techniques ranging from pharmaceutical options to physical therapy. Light exercise of the affected limb(s) can encourage fluid movement within the lymphatic system. So, too, can bandages or special massage techniques designed to encourage lymphatic drainage.

Compression is a very common form of treatment. Compression of the affected area helps fluid to flow out of the affected limb(s). Compression stockings are often used on both the arms and legs, and in some cases, a “pneumatic sleeve” that is attached to a pump will inflate and deflate regularly to speed the process along. In severe cases, doctors may surgically remove excess tissue caused by lymphedema, but removal of the tissue does not equate to removal of the condition.

Medical Malpractice Liability

Lymphedema can result from medical negligence. However, proving that a health care provider’s actions caused lymphedema can be an uphill battle, particularly in situations where damage to the lymphatic system is a known potential side effect. Usually, in those high risk procedures, doctors make sure to obtain informed consent from patients, meaning that the patient effectively declares their awareness that lymphedema may result, and that they will not hold the physician liable in that situation.

Like any other medical malpractice case, a lymphedema cause of action requires a breach of the standard of care that is the direct cause of injuries to a patient. The standard of care encompasses post-operative care, so if your doctor has missed signs of lymphedema (such as swelling, fatigue, recurring infections or restricted range of motion) you may have a viable cause of action. Your doctor has a duty to properly diagnose the condition.

Post-surgery, doctors should be aware of the potential for lymphedema. Certain surgical patients, such as those receiving mastectomies or other procedures where lymph nodes are removed or damaged, are known to have a high risk of lymphedema. Patients undergoing radiation therapy are also known to be at a high risk. The standard of care demands that physicians acknowledge these risks and monitor for lymphedema development.

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