Health And Lifestyle For The Over 50s

Understanding Lymphoedema and Coping with the Condition

lymphoedema swelling

Lymphoedema occurs when your lymphatic system isn’t functioning as it should be. Normally, this important system helps your body to get rid of infection, whilst draining excess fluid from the tissues. However, if the lymphatic system becomes damaged or develops in an abnormal way, it can cause fluid in the tissues to build up, which results in lymphoedema.

What does Lymphoedema look like?

Lymphoedema quite literally means ‘swelling’ caused by malfunctioning of the lymphatic system. This swelling can occur anywhere on the body, but most commonly, sufferers will experience swelling in the limbs, particularly around the lower legs and arms. Your clothes and shoes may become difficult to fit into and jewellery and watches may feel tight. The swelling may come and go at first and sufferers may find their symptoms ease overnight.

Additionally, if left untreated, the swelling can become hard and solid, as fat and protein begins to build up in the area.

What other symptoms are associated with lymphoedema?

  • It can also cause aching in the body, combined with a feeling of heaviness.
  • You can experience difficulty moving
  • Skin infections are common and areas of skin become tight and hard
  • Fluid can leak through the skin and wart like growths can develop


If left untreated, the condition generally gets worse.

There are different forms of lymphoedema:

Primary lymphoedema is caused by genetic development of the lymphatic system, and is most commonly found in younger adults.

Secondary lymphoedema occurs when the lymphatic system experiences damage, such as injury, infection or even treatment for cancer. Medical conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis and eczema can also cause problems for the lymphatic system.

Venous diseases such as deep vein thrombosis or varicose veins can also lead to lymphoedema. Obesity is another possible cause of secondary lymphoedema.

Lymphoedema is thought to affect more than 400,000 people in the UK. Secondary lymphoedema is the more common of the two, and affects around 20% of breast cancer sufferers. It also affects unto 50% of women with vulval cancer and 30% of men with penile cancer.

Is it Cause for Concern?

Many people feel self-conscious when they suffer with this condition, particularly if it makes regular activities such as walking or putting on shoes difficult. However, the real concern is the increased risk of infection that this condition can cause.

Cellulitis, which is an infection of the skin, is often associated with lymphoedema. Symptoms of cellulitis can include redness and heat in the skin, pain and swelling in the affected area and a high temperature or fever. Antibiotics can help treat these symptoms.

The condition could also be a sign of an underlying health condition such as heart failure or kidney disease. Therefore, it is essential that you seek medical advice.

Coping with Lymphoedema

If you’re suffering with this condition, the first thing to do is to get it checked out at your doctors, preferably before the problem has become serious. You may be referred to a specialist physiotherapist or nurse, who will assess the extent of your condition and work out the most appropriate course of action for you.

Here are some forms of treatment that you are likely to be offered:

Simple lymphatic drainage. Sometimes known as SLD, this gentle form of massage is used to reduce the swelling in the area. The massage is designed to be carried out by the patient, rather than a specialist.

Manual lymphatic drainage. If your condition is severe, you will be referred for MLD, or manual lymphatic drainage. This more rigorous form of massage requires specialist knowledge of the lymphatic system and is only carried out by a professional.

As with any swelling in the body, it’s important to stay mobile, in order to boost circulation. However, over-exertion can cause the problem to worsen, so it’s important to get advice from a specialist.

Skin care. To reduce the risk of cellulitis, it’s also vital to look after the skin and develop a good skincare regime.

Compression garments may help ease your discomfort and it is important to maintain a healthy diet and lifestyle. Simple measures such as raising the affected limb may help minimise fluid build up and bring some relief.

Living with a long term problem such as lymphoedema can cause a great deal of distress and this can lead to depression. If you are affected in this way, it is vital you talk about your concerns. Talking to other sufferers can be reassuring and help with feelings of anxiety, stress and isolation.

You may like to visit the website of the UK Lymphoedema Support Network, a charity set up by sufferers, for sufferers and their families.

Resolving the Problem

Traditionally, some medical practitioners have suggested that there is little you can do to treat this condition. Thankfully, times have moved on, and now, most doctors recognise that there are a variety of techniques you can use to improve the situation.

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