Lymphoedema is a long-term (chronic) condition that causes swelling in the body’s tissues. It can affect any part of the body, but usually develops in the arms or legs.
It develops when the lymphatic system doesn’t work properly. The lymphatic system is a network of channels and glands throughout the body that helps fight infection and remove excess fluid.
It’s important that lymphoedema is identified and treated as soon as possible. If it isn’t treated, it can get worse.
Symptoms of lymphoedema
The main symptom of lymphoedema is swelling in all or part of a limb or another part of the body. It can be difficult to fit into clothes, and jewellery and watches can feel tight.
At first, the swelling may come and go. It may get worse during the day and go down overnight. Without treatment, it will usually become more severe and persistent.
Other symptoms in an affected body part can include:
- an aching, heavy feeling
- difficulty with movement
- repeated skin infections
- hard, tight skin
- folds developing in the skin
- wart-like growths developing on the skin
- fluid leaking through the skin
What causes lymphoedema?
Lymphoedema is caused by a problem with the lymphatic system, a network of vessels and glands spread throughout the body. The main functions of the lymphatic system are helping fight infection and draining excess fluid from tissues.
There are two main types of lymphoedema:
- primary lymphoedema – caused by faulty genes that affect the development of the lymphatic system; it can develop at any age, but usually starts during infancy, adolescence, or early adulthood
- secondary lymphoedema – caused by damage to the lymphatic system or problems with the movement and drainage of fluid in the lymphatic system; it can be the result of an infection, injury, cancer treatment, inflammation of the limb, or a lack of limb movement
See your GP if you experience the typical symptoms of lymphoedema, such as swelling in your arms and legs. They may refer you to a specialist lymphoedema treatment centre for further assessment.
In many cases, lymphoedema can be diagnosed from your symptoms and medical history, and by examining the affected body part and measuring the distance around it to see if it’s enlarged.
Occasionally, further tests may be necessary to assess and monitor your condition.
There’s no cure for lymphoedema, but it’s usually possible to control the main symptoms using techniques to minimise fluid build-up and stimulate the flow of fluid through the lymphatic system.
These include wearing compression garments, taking good care of your skin, moving and exercising regularly, having a healthy diet and lifestyle, and using specialised massage techniques.
Unlike blood circulation, the lymphatic system has no central pump, such as the heart, to move fluid to the lymph glands.
Instead, it uses the massaging effect of surrounding muscles to move the fluid. This is why exercise is important.
See below some of the compression garments suitable for lymph oedema treatment.
This stimulates more effective lymph drainage. The combination of exercise and compression encourages the fluid to move out of the affected limb.
Compression garments may also be applied after a massage session to prevent fluid accumulating in the limb again.
You can find more about lymphoedema here.