What is lymphoedema?

LYMPH is a normal colourless fluid which forms in the body and drains into the blood through a network of vessels and nodes.

OEDEMA is a swelling of fluid in the tissues.

LYMPH NODE or lymph gland is a small grape size organ of the immune system. Lymph nodes are distributed throughout the body and linked by lymphatic vessels. They act as filters and trap foreign particles. Their main locations are neck, under the jaw, under the arms, in the region of the liver and the groin.

LYMPH VESSELS are present wherever there are blood vessels. Lymph vessels drain about 10% of fluid from the tissues of the body.

LYMPHOEDEMA is a chronic swelling of a part or parts of the body caused by a an acccumulation of fluid and protein in the tissues. It occurs when the lymphatic system does not work properly. It commonly occurs in the arms or legs but can occur anywhere in the body.

Types of lymphoedema

Primary lymphoedema – Can occur when the lymphatic system is not fully developed and the lymph fluid  doesn’t move from the affected limb/s effectively. It commonly affects one or both legs but may occur in other parts of the body. May be congenital or develop in adolescence or middle age. There may be an hereditary factor.

Secondary – May develop due to damage to the lymphatic vessels or lymph nodes.  It can occur anytime following surgery from days, months or years. Not all people develop secondary lymphoedema. It usually affects the limb although it can affect the breast, head and neck, trunk or genital area. Risk factors include any surgical procedure where there is damage to the lymphatic system, lymph node removal for biopsy, infection (cellulitis), mastectomy, chemotherapy, radiotherapy, trauma, genetic or filariasis.

Mixed – Can be described as functional deterioration of the lymphatic system. It can be related to lipoedema, increased body mass index (BMI), obesity, immobility, venous disease, varicose vein surgery.

LIPOEDEMA – An abnormal accumulation of fat cells which usually occurs in the legs between top of pelvis and ankles. Some facts about lipoedema:

  • Almost always occurs in women
  • Usually hereditary and occurs with an increase in weight
  • Skin is painful to touch and bruises easily
  • Swelling is bilateral
  • Legs increase in size, but not the feet and can sometimes build up in the arms. This condition does not respond to weight loss diets
  • Is poorly diagnosed and often dismissed as obesity
  • It can be misdiagnosed as lymphoedema
  • There are no effective treatments for this condition, very difficult to manage
  • Patients can have mixed lipoedema/lymphoedema, the oedema develops due to overloading of the lymphatic system
  • Early warning signs:
    • Can be evident for a few years prior to the development of swelling
    • Pain and or heaviness felt in the affected limb/s or body part
    • Tightness in the limb or other body part/s
    • Clothing or jewellery becomes tighter