Lymphoedema 

Introduction 

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

As well as a circulatory system that transports blood from the heart to the rest of the body, your body has a second circulatory system known as the lymphatic system.

The lymphatic system is made up of a network of vessels (channels) and glands called lymph nodes, which are distributed throughout the body. Lymph nodes are small, oval glands that remove unwanted bacteria and particles from the body. They are part of the immune system (the body’s natural defence system).

The lymphatic system has two important functions:

  • It helps to fight infection  the lymphatic system contains a fluid called lymph, which is full of infection-fighting cells.
  • It drains excess fluid from tissue – as the 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.

Lymphoedema is a chronic (long-term) condition that causes swelling in the body's tissue. This can lead to pain and a loss of mobility.

Lymphoedema usually affects the arms or legs, although in some cases there may be swelling in the:

  • chest
  • head
  • genitals

Lymphoedema is caused by damage or disruption to the lymphatic system.

One function of the lymphatic system is to drain excess fluid from tissues. If the lymphatic system is disrupted or damaged, it can lose this ability and the excess fluid will cause the tissue to swell.

Read more about the symptoms of lymphoedema.

Types of lymphoedema

There are two main types of lymphoedema:

  • Primary lymphoedema – which develops at birth or shortly after puberty and is caused by faulty genes.
  • Secondary lymphoedema caused by damage to the lymphatic system as a result of an infection, injury, trauma, or cancer.

Secondary lymphoedema often develops as a side effect of cancer treatment. Surgery is often necessary to remove lymph glands to prevent a cancer from spreading, this can damage the lymphatic system. 

Radiotherapy, where controlled doses of high-energy radiation are used to destroy cancer cells, can also damage the lymphatic system.

Read more about the causes of lymphoedema.

Who is affected?

It is estimated that 1 in 10,000 people are affected by primary lymphoedema.

Secondary lymphoedema is a relatively common condition, affecting an estimated 100,000 people in the UK.

Secondary lymphoedema occurs more frequently in women, possibly because it can sometimes be a side effect of breast cancer treatment.

Cancer Research UK estimates than one in five women may have lymphoedema in their arm after they have had radiotherapy or lymph nodes removed to treat breast cancer.

If you are at risk of developing lymphoedema due to cancer treatment, you may be offered an assessment as part of your aftercare. Read more about how lymphoedema is diagnosed.

Treating lymphoedema

There is no cure for lymphoedema, but it is possible to control the symptoms using a combination of different techniques, such as massage and compression garments.

There are also things you can do to help prevent the condition getting worse. This includes taking care of your skin to avoid infection and having a healthy diet and lifestyle.

If you have received treatment for cancer, these measures may also help to prevent lymphoedema.

Read more about how lymphoedema is treated and preventing lymphoedema.

Complications

People with lymphoedema are more vulnerable to infection. This is because infection-fighting white blood cells, called lymphocytes, which travel in the lymphatic system, are prevented from reaching the part of the body where they are needed.

A bacterial infection of the skin called cellulitis is one of the most commonly reported infections in people with lymphoedema.

Read more about complications of lymphoedema.




Page last reviewed: 20/07/2012

Next review due: 20/07/2014

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The 2 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

User866847 said on 23 April 2014

Why does the Community Tab on Lymphoedema on NHS Choices link to a forum on LYMPHOMA?

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fortytrix said on 10 January 2014

Hello. Serious question. Where do i go, what do I do to put right the twenty years of suffering with bilateral lymphoedema caused (recently discovered) itt was caused by the surgeon cutting my inguinal node in a routine appendectomy.

Thank you much appreciated

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