Lymphoedema is a type of swelling that occurs when the lymphatic system does not easily drain fluid from areas of the body. It has many different causes and can be a long term condition. Lymphoedema may develop slowly over several years, or more suddenly. Lymphoedema can usually be well controlled with early detection and careful attention.
Who is at risk of lymphoedema?
- Around 20% of women who have breast cancer treatment may develop lymphoedema of the arm. Some women experience swelling of the breast or chest area.
- Lymphoedema of the leg can develop after cancer treatment; for example, if someone has lymph nodes removed or radiotherapy to the lymph nodes or abdomen.
- Lymphoedema can occur after trauma, injuries, surgery or medical conditions such as vein problems or leg ulcers.
- People who use a wheelchair or have difficulty with walking can be at risk of lymphoedema. Movement such as walking helps to encourage drainage of lymph through the lymphatic system. People with neurological problems such as multiple sclerosis may be at risk of lymphoedema.
- Primary lymphoedema can be an inherited condition, or may develop early in life. Sometimes there is a family history of swelling.
- Lipoedema is most common in women and often first develops around puberty when fat tissue increases on the legs, hips and sometimes on the arms. The skin is soft, bruises easily and the enlarged areas can become very painful. Lipoedema fat does not respond to dieting, and can lead to secondary lymphoedema as the lymphatics do not work effectively.
Lymphoedema affects people of all ages, but is more common in an older person. Our lymphatic system gets less efficient as we get older, if we put on weight, or become less mobile. Lymphoedema can also be affected by certain medications, hot temperatures, poor health, or changes in daily activities.
How to recognise lymphoedema
- Swelling may be mild and temporary at first, and may reduce overnight while you are lying down.
- Jewellery, clothing or shoes may be tight, and you may notice indentations in your skin.
- Your limb may feel heavy or warm, with changes in sensations.
- The swelling may become more persistent, and your skin can become dry, scaly, or firm to touch.
- You might develop skin problems, or an infection called cellulitis when you temperature is raised and you should contact your doctor urgently for antibiotics.
Whatever the cause of lymphoedema, the treatments and care are often very similar. We will advise you on the treatment and self-care options relevant to your individual situation.
The lymphatic system
Lymphology is the study of the lymphatic system and conditions such as lymphoedema. Our lymphatic system is an important but often misunderstood system in the body. It is similar to a river, and has many small tributaries, draining fluid and waste products from the skin and deeper organs, and returning it to the blood circulation where it is then filtered through the kidneys to remove any waste.
INTERESTING FACT 1: Each person has over 600 lymph nodes that filter out impurities, and deal with infection. This means that the lymphatic system helps us to stay healthy.
INTERESTING FACT 2: In someone with lymphoedema, the lymphatic system can be improved and become more healthy. You can learn more about how to make this happen!