Fibrosis and Venous Disease

Fibrosis: An overlooked complication of venous disease impacting surgical success

CHRONIC SWELLING is a common complication of venous disease, signifying both venous and lymphatic insufficiency, and is referred to as phlebolymphedema (Cavezzi, Lee). Soft tissue fibrosis is a common sequela of phlebolymphedema, with numerous etiologies, but common to all fibrosis is the potential to obstruct circulation, create pain, and limit movement and function (Földi 2012).

Vascular surgery effectively ameliorates symptoms in many patients, but patients with more complex recalcitrant swelling, such as those classified CEAP C3 and above, are likely to have more fibrosis to begin with. They are also more likely to have complications and persistent swelling following vascular surgery (Disselhoff, Földi 2000, Pittaluga).

Identifying common types of phlebolymphedema-related fibrosis

Lymphostatic fibrosis is a progressive inflammatory process in chronic edema, characterized by fibrosclerotic changes in tissue. It is formed by lymph stasis, which attracts fat cells that bind to surrounding tissues. Lymphostatic fibrosis first presents as soft, fatty tissue—it can be mistaken for swelling—but it does not reduce and becomes harder and larger over time as superficial cutaneous lymphatics become obliterated (Butcher).

In extreme and advanced cases of phlebolymphedema, especially those compounded by obesity, hard, overhanging lobules can form along the ankle and leg that interfere with mobility. Lymphostatic fibrosis is present in all patients with chronic swelling with varying degrees of severity, even those classified as lymphedema stage 0 without detectible edema (Földi 2012). Thus, some patients with CEAP classification C0 may have latent edema and, therefore, sclerotic changes, even before progressing to identifiable edema: CEAP stage C3.

Stemmer’s sign (also called Kaposi-Stemmer’s sign) is a clinical test for lymphedema. It is positive when the skin on the top of the second toe (or index finger) is thickened and the skin cannot lift when it is pinched. This occurs in toes with profuse swelling and also with toes that have developed lymphostatic fibrosis (Brenner).

Lipodermatosclerosis (LDS) is a painful inflammatory process in which a constrictive panniculitis is formed in the dermis surrounding the ankle and lower leg. This band of hard, fibrotic tissue gives lower legs the characteristic inverted champagne bottle or bowling pin shape, with small ankles and large, swollen calves. It is usually bilateral and can mimic cellulitis in the early stages (Farrow, Mortimer 2018).

Post-thrombotic syndrome is a frequent complication of deep vein thrombosis (DVT) that can create a myriad of symptoms, including thickened tissues, which obstruct venous and lymphatic circulation (Bouman, Kahn). In addition to anticoagulation, compression treatment post-thrombosis is recommended to resolve symptoms and prevent reoccurrence (Chibbaro).

Scar tissue from surgery or trauma can create stasis by mechanical obstruction to venous and lymphatic circulation (Fernandez, Földi 2012) and can worsen chronic lymphedema (Lynch). Scar tissue is associated with impairment in lymphatic regeneration (Avraham) and can trap lymphedema (Warren).

Post-cellulitis fibrosis can occur with venous and lymphatic insufficiency. Those with lymphedema have a 71-fold risk over the normal population (Dupuy, Mortimer 2014). The damaged post-cellulitis tissues can become hyperkeratotic, and lymphatic pathways can be obliterated (de Godoy). The resultant impaired local circulation makes infectious reoccurrence more likely (Al-Niaimi, de Godoy, Tay).

Wound-related fibrosis

Scarring is common following closure of large or deep wounds, and poor vascular and lymphatic circulation impacts the rate of healing and quality of the scar (Cedidi, Marshall, Singer, Son). Chronic, nonhealing venous leg ulcers (VLU) can display a “bed” of dense, fibrotic tissue surrounding the wound as well as plaques of biofilm in the wound bed that inhibit local circulation and wound closure (Malone, Raghow).

Atrophie blanche, also known as livedo vasculitis, is identifiable by star-shaped or polyangular hypopigmented scarring due to alterations in microcirculation in which capillaries are decreased and even absent. These damaged areas are prone to repeated ulceration and further scarring (Amital, Maessen-Visch).

Dermal fibrosis results from chronic inflammation associated with severe phlebolymphedema. It is often a byproduct of stasis and ulceration with debilitated lymphatic circulation to the dermis (Fernandez).

Forms of dermal fibrosis

Hyperkeratosis is caused by an overproduction of keratin, producing nodules on the surface of the skin. These can vary in size from small, “mossy” patches (papillomatosis) to raised, wart-like growths (papillomas). These nodules are often pruritic and can be worsened when patients scratch them. In rare cases with long-standing lymphedema, malignant tumors develop (lymphangiosarcomas). Topical medication can be of some use, but underlying swelling must be addressed (Fife, Földi 2012, Gianesini 2018).

Stasis dermatitis is a direct consequence of venous hypertension and creates hypoxia and cell death from the disruption of microcirculation and the creation of fibrin cuffs (Farrow). It is characterized by hemosiderin deposits, eczematous, and atrophic dermal patches with the medial ankle most commonly affected.

Proximal fibrosis that is not directly related to venous disease can significantly influence circulation in the feet and legs and contribute to the progression of phlebolymphedema. Damage to structures in the abdomen, trunk, genitals, and proximal legs by means such as surgery, trauma, or radiation therapy can negatively impact lower extremity circulation by interrupting proximal lymphatic circulation. Common etiologies include treatment for reproductive cancers, inguinal lymph node dissection for lower extremity melanoma, and even total hip replacement surgery.

Treatment for fibrosis

Treatment for fibrosis has two phases: first addressing swelling, and then treating fibrotic obstruction.

Phase I: Treating swelling

Decongestion evacuates swelling from the feet and legs, and it is essential to immediately apply compression to preserve results and prevent reflux. Manual lymphatic drainage (MLD) is the gold standard of treatment both for the reduction and maintenance of swelling (Földi 2012, Molski).

Intermittent pneumatic compression (IPC) is both a decongestive and compressive treatment proven to be a more effective in-home treatment than MLD (Wilburn). This is particularly true for patients with limitations in strength, range of motion, and endurance. IPC treats phlebolymphema using a mechanized gradient sequential compression system and is known to accelerate wound healing and prevent cellulitis infections (Brayton, Comerota, Lantis). IPC equipment is covered by many insurances, including Medicare, with requirements of a qualifying diagnosis and persistent swelling despite a home trial of elevation, exercise, and compression garments (Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services).

Elevation harnesses the effects of gravity to facilitate lymphatic and venous return. Leg positioning is an important consideration for those who are sedentary with impaired mobility. Particularly vulnerable are those who spend waking and sleeping hours in a reclining chair with legs in a dependent or semi-dependent position. Many of these so-called “armchair patients” seek an upright torso position of comfort to ameliorate comorbidities such as asthma, back pain, or obstructive sleep apnea (Stignant). Patients with mixed disease may find elevating legs to be painful due to decreased arterial circulation (Martin-Du Pan). These issues need to be addressed in order to allow better positioning options to facilitate improved venous and lymphatic return (Cook) and to ultimately ameliorate phlebolymphema and arrest the progression of lymphostatic fibrosis.

Compression garments and bandaging provide external pressure against veins and lymphatics to compensate for valvular incompetence and reflux by improving hemodynamics and the effectiveness of the calf muscle pump (Ibegbuna, Mortimer 2004, O’Brien). The use of compression is well-documented post venous surgery (Bakker, Biswas, Chou, Elderman, Lurie [2019], Nootheti, Onwudike, Reich-Schupke, Wittens, Ye). Chronic edema requires continuous compression (Moffatt 2012). Gradient elastic stockings are generally used for maintenance and for milder swelling. Layered short-stretch bandages or Velcro compression wraps are used for initial reduction and ongoing treatment of very swollen feet and legs, and disposable compression wraps are a component of wound care (International Society of Lymphology Executive Committee, Wittens).

Skincare is essential for the treatment and prevention of wounds. Feet and legs should be cleaned and dried daily, and fungal infections should be addressed promptly. Xerosis and frail skin increase wound risk factors and require conditioning with emollients. Topical medications may be indicated, but bacitracin and neomycin should be avoided because they are frequent allergens and can provoke contact dermatitis (Farrow, Fife, Herrick, Holloway).

Exercise, particularly ankle movement in walking, is a critical factor in venous and lymphatic circulation (Lattimer, Padberg, Strobenreuther). The veins and lymphatics rely on muscle pump action of the calf muscles for upward circulation against gravity. There is a correlation between the “shuffle gait” and limited ankle range of motion producing reduced calf muscle contraction, yielding impaired circulation (Kan). This deterioration in function correlates with the development of CVI (chronic venous insufficiency) and venous ulcers (Back). Those with paresis or paralysis of the lower legs are particularly vulnerable to swelling. Diaphragmatic breathing has been shown to improve lower leg venous circulation (Aliverti, Miller, Willeput).

For those with intact and healthy skin, aquatic exercise gives an added benefit of gradient water compression and has been shown to increase ankle flexibility and decrease chronic leg edema (Gianesini 2016). Stevin’s law demonstrates that the deeper the water, the greater the water compression. For example, exercising at a depth of one meter yields 74 mmHg of pressure on the feet (Wilcock).

Education empowers patients to reduce risk factors for swelling and infection. Lifestyle changes may be indicated, including smoking cessation, weight loss, increasing activity, and mobility, and adherence to a home swelling management program (Labropoulos).

Lifestyle changes may be indicated, including smoking cessation, weight loss, increasing activity, and mobility, and adherence to a home swelling management program.”

Phase 2: Treating fibrotic obstructions

Many of the above-mentioned treatments for swelling also help fibrosis. Increased pressure is required to remodel areas of heavy fibrotic damage and to effectively move swelling trapped inside and underneath the fibrotic tissue (Földi 2012). It is important to adjust treatment if there is fragile skin or paresthesia.

Compression bandaging and garments can facilitate both circulation and fibrosis remodeling and utilize textured, irregular surfaces to mechanically soften the dermis and deeper tissues. Typical examples are channeled foam, chipped form pieces quilted into pads or garments, and elastic garments with a textured weave.

The negative spaces in the surface of the garment direct fluid out of swollen areas and create a micro-massage to soften hardened areas (Farrow, Zuther). Increasing external compression and bulk can increase effectiveness, but additional bulk may impede joint motion and make it more difficult to walk, making it less of an ongoing day- time treatment and a more popular nocturnal choice.

Manual therapy and instrument-assisted techniques utilize specialized massage and tools to create a controlled microtrauma to remodel fibrotic tissue (Baker, Chughtai). Various tools can be used to produce deep massage, negative pressure, and vibration. The use of a low-level 904 nm nonthermal laser in conjunction with these techniques can enhance this process by addressing fibrosis and ameliorating inflammation (Fillipin).

Skincare may need to be upgraded with topical medications to address specific types of dermal fibrosis (Fife).

IPC used at higher pressures (>50 mmHg) remodels fibrotic tissues and creates new deep lymphatic channels when superficial lymphatics are obliterated by fibrosis (Olszewski, Zaleska). The amount of pressure should be titrated to ensure the treatment is both effective and comfortable. Patients with wounds or diabetic neuropathy may tolerate higher pressures with the use of specific IPC devices that have features such as wave-like programming, rapid inflation, faster cycle time, and long pause timers between compression cycles to increase comfort and lymphatic uptake during high-compression treatment.

Faster cycle time has been proven to be superior in healing VLU (Nikolovska). Anti-fibrotic compression garments or pads, as described above, can be used concurrently with pneumatic compression to enhance remodeling effects.


Fibrosis is a less frequently identified component of chronic venous disease that is known to compound circulatory impairment. Addressing swelling and fibrosis conservatively should be considered prior to perform venous procedures with complex patients, both to manage swelling prior to surgery and as aftercare.


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