What is lymphoedema and who does it affect?

Authored by Olivia Clarke (Northern Sports Physiotherapy Clinic) and Laura Stafford (St George Physiotherapy), Physiotherapists and Accredited Lymphoedema Therapists.

Lymphoedema is the build-up of fluid in the body due to a compromised lymphatic system. The fluid usually builds up slowly over time and can be anywhere in the body, but most commonly in the arm or leg. It can be a side effect of cancer surgery, where they remove the lymph nodes (often in the groin or underarm) or be a chronic condition that you are born with.

How do I know I have lymphoedema?

You’ll usually get the diagnosis from your doctor or oncologist and early signs and symptoms are:

  • A general ache in the limb with a vague heaviness
  • Decreased movement in the limb
  • Tightness of jewellery, shoes or clothes
  • Swelling in the limb
  • Recurring skin infections in the area

Risk factors for developing lymphoedema are:

  • Cancer treatment which involves lymph node removal and radiation therapy
  • Overweight/obesity
  • Poor hygiene and skincare

What do I do if I have these symptoms?

Lymphoedema is very manageable if caught early and if you notice any of these symptoms then speak to your GP or oncologist. Ongoing management will require a referral to an accredited lymphoedema therapist which will continue with your ongoing treatment.

What does treatment involve?

Treatment can greatly reduce swelling, reduce pain/discomfort and improve the function of the limb. Along with your doctor or oncologist, accredited lymphoedema therapists can use a range of techniques to help you manage your symptoms and take back control.

These include:
• Compression
• Exercise
• Manual therapy – manual lymphatic drainage techniques
• Skin care and scar management

For more information about Lymphoedema view our service here.