Introduction 

Lymphoedema is a chronic (long-term) 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.

Other symptoms of lymphoedema can include an aching, heavy feeling in affected body parts and difficulty moving them.

Lymphoedema can get worse if it's not treated, so you should speak to a doctor if you think you may have the condition.

Read more about the symptoms of lymphoedema and diagnosing lymphoedema.

What causes lymphoedema?

Lymphoedema is caused by a problem with the lymphatic system. This is a network of vessels and glands distributed throughout the body. Its major functions are helping to fight infection and drain excess fluid from tissues.

Abnormal development of the lymphatic system, damage to it, and/or an increase in fluid in the body tissues can all lead to lymphoedema.

There are two main types of lymphoedema:

  • primary lymphoedema  caused by faulty genes affecting the development of the lymphatic system; it can develop at any age, but usually occurs in early adulthood
  • secondary lymphoedema  caused by damage to the lymphatic system or problems with the movement and drainage of fluid in the lymphatic system, often due to an infection, injury, cancer treatment, inflammation of the limb or a lack of limb movement 

Read more about the causes of lymphoedema.

Who is affected

A recent study has suggested that over 200,000 people in the UK may be living with lymphoedema. 

Secondary lymphoedema has been shown to affect approximately one in five women after breast cancer treatment.

Primary lymphoedema is less common than secondary lymphoedema, and is estimated to affect around one in every 6,000 people.

How lymphoedema is treated

There is no cure for lymphoedema, but it is 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.

Read more about treating lymphoedema and preventing lymphoedema.

Complications

The build-up of fluid in the tissues of people with lymphoedema means they are more vulnerable to infection.

In particular, a bacterial infection of the skin called cellulitis is commonly reported in people with the condition.

Read more about the complications of lymphoedema.

Lymphoedema: Philippa's story

Primary lymphoedema is a long-term condition that causes swelling in the legs. In this video, Philippa describes how she lives with this condition.

Media last reviewed: 30/04/2013

Next review due: 30/04/2015

The lymphatic system

The lymphatic system is made up of a network of vessels (channels) and small glands called lymph nodes, which are distributed throughout the body and carry a fluid called lymph.

The lymphatic system has two important functions:

  • helping to fight infection  lymph nodes contain infection-fighting cells such as lymphocytes
  • draining excess fluid from tissue  as blood circulates through your tissue, it leaves behind waste products such as fluids and proteins; this is removed from the tissues by the lymphatic system, which filters out any bacteria or viruses, and drains the remaining lymph back into your blood

Page last reviewed: 20/10/2014

Next review due: 20/10/2016