Lymphoedema is a chronic (long-term) 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. Other symptoms of lymphoedema can include an aching, heavy feeling in affected body parts and difficulty moving them. Lymphoedema can get worse if it’s not treated.
What causes lymphoedema?
Lymphoedema is caused by a problem with the lymphatic system. The lymphatic system is made up of a network of vessels (channels) and small glands called lymph nodes, which are distributed throughout the body and carry a fluid called lymph.
The lymphatic system has two important functions:
- Helping to fight infection – lymph nodes contain infection-fighting cells such as lymphocytes
- Draining excess fluid from tissue – as blood circulates through your tissue, it leaves behind waste products such as fluids and proteins; this is removed from the tissues by the lymphatic system, which filters out any bacteria or viruses, and drains the remaining lymph back into your blood.
Abnormal development of the lymphatic system, damage to it, and/or an increase in fluid in the body tissues can all lead to lymphoedema.
Who is affected?
Secondary lymphoedema has been shown to affect approximately one in five women after breast cancer treatment. Primary lymphoedema is less common than secondary lymphoedema, and is estimated to affect around one in every 6,000 people.
There are two main types of lymphoedema:
- Primary lymphoedema – caused by faulty genes affecting the development of the lymphatic system; it can develop at any age, but usually occurs in early adulthood
- secondary lymphoedema – caused by damage to the lymphatic system or problems with the movement and drainage of fluid in the lymphatic system, often due to an infection, injury, cancer treatment, inflammation of the limb or a lack of limb movement.
How lymphoedema is treated?
There is no known cure for lymphoedema, but it is usually possible to control the main symptoms using techniques to minimise fluid build-up and stimulate the flow of fluid through the lymphatic system.
The recommended treatment for lymphoedema is decongestive lymphatic therapy (DLT).
DLT is not a cure for lymphoedema, but it can help control the symptoms. Although it takes time and effort, the treatment can be used to effectively control your lymphoedema.
Decongestive lymphatic therapy (DLT)
There are four components to DLT:
- Compression bandages and garments – to move 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) – to stimulate the flow of fluid in the lymphatic system and reduce swelling.
Unlike the blood circulation system, there is no central pump, such as the heart, to move fluid around the lymphatic system. Instead, the lymphatic system uses the massaging effect of surrounding muscles to move the fluid.
If a patient has lymphoedema, doctors recommend the use of special compression garments (such as sleeves or stockings) to fit over any affected limbs. PROVENO compression garments will support the affected muscles during exercise and encourage them to move fluid out of the affected limb.
These may also be applied after a session of MLD, to prevent fluid accumulating in the limb again. This use of compression garments is known as multilayer lymphoedema bandaging. Once a Liposuction surgery is complete, doctors advice to wear a compression garment on the affected limb day and night for at least a year to help keep the swelling down.