What is lymphoedema?

Lymphoedema is a chronic condition characterised by swelling in the tissues of the body along with fluid retention, as the body is unable to drain lymph fluid. The most commonly affected areas are the legs and arms, though it can occur anywhere in the body.

What are the symptoms of lymphoedema?

The symptoms of lymphoedema include:

  • Swelling in part, or all, of the arm or leg
  • Discomfort
  • Aching
  • Thickening of the skin, or hardening of the skin (also called fibrosis)
  • Difficulty moving, or feeling restricted
  • Skin infections which are reoccurring
  • Fluid coming through the skin
  • A heavy feeling in the leg, arm, or area affected

What causes lymphoedema?

Lymphoedema is caused by a problem in the lymphatic system, which is part of the immune system and helps to drain excess fluid from tissues, and fight infection. When a blockage occurs, or the lymph nodes become damaged, this can lead to lymphoedema. Lymphoedema can be caused by faulty genes (primary lymphoedema), which in turn mean the lymphatic system does not develop as it should. It can also be caused by damage to the lymphatic system (secondary lymphoedema), for example through injury, infection, inactivity, or inflammation.

How can lymphoedema be prevented?

Lymphoedema cannot be fully prevented against, but there are certain lifestyle measures which can be taken to reduce the risk. Leading a healthy lifestyle is the best way to prevent against the condition, meaning a healthy weight should be maintained, exercise should be taken regularly, and a healthy balanced diet is essential.

What is the treatment for lymphoedema?

There is currently no cure for lymphoedema, but it can be managed and the symptoms can be adequately controlled to improve quality of life. Treatment attempts to minimise the build-up of fluid in the affected area and help to stimulate the fluid through the lymphatic system. Some ways of doing this are through compression clothing or garments, a healthy diet and exercise, lifestyle changes, and special massages to help drain and stimulate the affected area.

Some patients may also find that they need emotional or psychological help, as living with a long-term condition can be distressing and upsetting. Receiving the correct treatment and reaching out for support when it is needed is vital in the management of lymphoedema.

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