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 doesn't 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 isn't treated, it can get worse.
This page covers:
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:
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 two main types of lymphoedema:
Read more about the causes of lymphoedema.
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.
People who have treatment for melanoma in the lymph nodes in the groin can also get lymphoedema. Research has shown around 20-50% of people are affected.
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.
The Cancer Research UK website has more information about lymphoedema and cancer.
See your 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.
Occasionally, further tests may be necessary to assess and monitor your condition.
Read more about diagnosing 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.
Cellulitis is the most common complication of lymphoedema. It can also have a significant psychological impact.
If you have lymphoedema, the build-up of fluid in your tissues makes you more vulnerable to infection.
Cellulitis is a bacterial infection of the deep layer of skin (dermis) that often affects people with lymphoedema. Cellulitis can also sometimes cause lymphoedema.
Symptoms of cellulitis can include:
Antibiotics taken by mouth (orally) can usually be used to treat cellulitis, although severe cases may need to be treated in hospital with antibiotics given directly into a vein (intravenously).
Living with a long-term condition that affects your appearance can cause a great deal of distress and lead to periods of depression.
You may be depressed if you've been feeling down for the past few months and no longer find pleasure in things you usually enjoy.
If this is the case, talk to your GP or a member of your lymphoedema treatment team. Effective treatments are available for depression.
Talking to other people with lymphoedema can be reassuring and decrease feelings of isolation, stress and anxiety.
The Lymphoedema Support Network provides information and advice, and can put you in touch with a support group in your area.
Remember: if you persevere with your treatment plan, your symptoms should eventually become less noticeable.