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Lymphoedema is a condition caused but a failure of the lymphatic system, it results in a swelling of the limbs or other area of the body.

It can be present from birth, develop during puberty or have a secondary cause such as surgery, injury or trauma.


Lymphoedema is a long-term (chronic) 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.

It develops when the lymphatic system does not work properly. The lymphatic system is a network of channels and glands throughout the body that helps fight infection and remove excess fluid.


It's important that lymphoedema is identified and treated as soon as possible. If it is not treated, it can get worse.

Symptoms of lymphoedema

The main symptom of lymphoedema is swelling in all or part of a limb or another part of the body. It can be difficult to fit into clothes, and jewellery and watches can feel tight.

At first, the swelling may come and go. It may get worse during the day and go down overnight. Without treatment, it will usually become more severe and persistent.


Other symptoms in an affected body part can include:

  • an aching, heavy feeling

  • difficulty with movement

  • repeated skin infections

  • hard, tight skin

  • folds developing in the skin

  • wart-like growths developing on the skin

  • fluid leaking through the skin

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Lymphoedema is caused by a problem with the lymphatic system, a network of vessels and glands spread throughout the body. The main functions of the lymphatic system are helping fight infection and draining excess fluid from tissues.

There are 2 main types of lymphoedema:

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Primary lymphoedema

Caused by faulty genes that affect the development of the lymphatic system; it can develop at any age, but usually starts during infancy, adolescence, or early adulthood.

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Secondary lymphoedema

Caused by damage to the lymphatic system or problems with the movement and drainage of fluid in the lymphatic system; it can be the result of a cancer treatment, an infection, injury, inflammation of the limb, or a lack of limb movement.

Who's affected

Lymphoedema is thought to affect more than 200,000 people in the UK. Primary lymphoedema is rare and is thought to affect around 1 in every 6,000 people.


Secondary lymphoedema is much more common. Secondary lymphoedema affects around 2 in 10 people with breast cancer, and 5 in 10 people with vulval cancer. About 3 in every 10 people with penile cancer get lymphoedema.

People who have treatment for melanoma in the lymph nodes in the groin can also get lymphoedema.

Your treatment team will let you know if you're at risk of getting lymphoedema from your cancer or cancer treatment. Any planned treatment you have will try to avoid causing damage to your lymph nodes.

Diagnosing lymphoedema

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See a GP if you experience the typical symptoms of lymphoedema, such as swelling in your arms and legs. They may refer you to a specialist lymphoedema treatment centre for further assessment.

In many cases, lymphoedema can be diagnosed from your symptoms and medical history, and by examining the affected body part and measuring the distance around it to see if it's enlarged.

The most accurate way to diagnose Lymphoedema is through Lymphatic Imaging. This could be either Lymphoscintigraphy or ICG Lymphatic Imaging.

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Treating lymphoedema

There's no cure for lymphoedema, but it's 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.

Decongestive lymphatic therapy (DLT)

There are 4 components to DLT:

  • compression bandages – to complement exercise by moving fluid out of the affected limb and minimise further build-up

  • skin care – to keep the skin in good condition and reduce the chances of infection

  • exercises – to use muscles in the affected limb to improve lymph drainage

  • specialised massage techniques – known as manual lymphatic drainage (MLD); this stimulates the flow of fluid in the lymphatic system and reduces swelling

How can we help...

LymphVision offers a range of services for lymphoedema,

lipoedema and those a risk of developing lymphoedema.

Find out more about our services and how we may be able to support you. 

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