Diagnosing lymphoedema 

If you're being treated for cancer and are at risk of developing lymphoedema, you'll be monitored for the condition afterwards. Otherwise, see your GP if you experience symptoms of swelling.

There are a number of specialist lymphoedema treatment centres in the UK. Your doctor may refer you to one of these for further assessment. A list of treatment centres near you is available from the Lymphoedema Support Network.

In many cases, it's possible to make a diagnosis of lymphoedema by:

  • asking about your symptoms and medical history
  • examining the affected body part and measuring the distance around it to see if it's enlarged 

Further tests

Although not necessary in most cases, further tests may occasionally be used to assess and monitor your condition. These tests are explained below.

Measuring limb volume

In some cases, tests to calculate the volume of an affected limb may be carried out. These may include:

  • a tape measure to measure the circumference of the limb at certain intervals, to calculate its volume
  • water displacement – where you place the affected limb in a tank of water and the amount of water that is displaced is measured to calculate the volume of the limb
  • perometry – infrared light is used to measure the outline of an affected limb and calculate its volume

Bioimpedance testing

During a bioimpedance test, electrodes (small metallic discs) are placed on different parts of your body. The electrodes release a small and painless electric charge that is measured using a handheld device. Changes in the strength of the current can indicate the presence of fluid in your tissue.

Imaging tests

Imaging tests may also be used to help diagnose and monitor lymphoedema. These include:

  • a lymphoscintigraph  you are injected with a radioactive dye that can be tracked using a special scanner; this shows how the dye moves through your lymphatic system and can check for any blockages
  • a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan  which uses a strong magnetic field and radio waves to produce detailed images of the inside of your body 
  • an ultrasound scan  which uses high-frequency sound waves to create an image of the inside of your body
  • a computerised tomography (CT) scan  which uses X-rays and a computer to create detailed images of the lymph nodes

These scans can be used to create a clearer picture of the affected tissue.

Page last reviewed: 20/10/2014

Next review due: 20/10/2016