Lymphoedema is a condition where your lymph vessels are unable to effectively drain lymph fluid from parts of your body, usually an arm or a leg (but it can be any body part). This results in the affected area becoming swollen. It usually has a gradual onset, getting worse over time.
What are lymph vessels, lymph nodes and lymph fluid?
Lymph vessels are thin structures in the body, very similar to blood vessels. They are responsible for moving fluid from your body’s cells back to the heart. Lymph nodes are glands that help to filter lymph fluid. Lymph fluid is a clear watery fluid that is contained within the lymph vessels. It is a collection of the fluids that drain out of your body’s cells along with proteins, white blood cells and other substances.
What causes lymphoedema?
It can occur on its own (called primary lymphoedema) or can occur due to a disease or condition (called secondary lymphoedema). Primary lymphoedema is linked to genetics or can occur when the lymphatic system is developing as a foetus. The swelling is not always present at birth and can develop in later years.
Secondary lymphoedema is caused by an injury to the lymphatics (either the vessels or the lymph nodes). This can be from surgery, chemotherapy, radiation or chronic swelling (from conditions such as venous disease, inflammation and infection)
How do I know I have lymphoedema?
Early signs of lymphoedema can be difficult to detect, but generally there will be a feeling of heaviness in the affected body part and/or a change in sensation of the affected body part (e.g. achiness, tingling)
In later stages there will be “puffiness”/swelling (that may come and go or remain constant) in the affected body part and sometimes skin changes will occur (tightness, redness, hardening or thickening of the skin)
Can lymphoedema be cured?
No. But with help from a therapist trained in lymphoedema therapy is can be managed fairly well. The earlier the problem is noticed, and treatment is given, the better the outcomes.
What should I do if I suspect I have lymphoedema?
You should see your doctor to rule out any other conditions that may cause swelling and possibly help with a diagnosis. You should also contact a lymphoedema therapist and book an assessment.
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(Photo credit: Principles and Practice of Lymphedema Surgery. Cheng MH, Chang DW, Patel KM (Editors). Elsevier Inc, Oxford, United Kingdom. ISBN 978-0-323-29897-1. July 2015.)
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