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HealthInfo Canterbury

Lymphoedema

What is lymphoedema?

Lymphoedema is swelling caused by a build-up of lymph in your arms and legs (limbs). It happens when your body's lymphatic system isn't working properly. Your lymphatic system is a network of channels and glands that carries lymph fluid. Lymph fluid contains the white blood cells that are part of your immune system and help you to fight infections.

In lymphoedema, too much fluid builds up in your limbs rather than being drained away. It causes uncomfortable and unsightly swelling, a higher risk of infection under your skin, and further damage to your lymphatic system.

Lymphoedema is not life-threatening, but can't be cured. So once you have it you will need to manage it.

What causes lymphoedema?

Lymph is a clear, protein-rich fluid that contains many white blood cells, which help you to fight infection. Sometimes your body produces more lymph, for example, when you have an infection, injury, or disease, or when your muscle cells work hard during strenuous exercise.

Normally your lymphatic system and blood vessels can cope with this extra fluid, but if either is damaged, the fluid will build up in your tissues. This causes swelling.

Primary lymphoedema is something you are born with, or develops in puberty, or later life. Normally this is because you were born without enough lymphatic channels. This is called Milroy's disease. One leg is often worse than the other, and sometimes only one leg is affected.

Secondary lymphoedema is caused by an injury or damage to your lymphatic system. Secondary lymphoedema can be caused by:

Reducing your risk of getting lymphoedema

To reduce your risk of getting lymphoedema, take good care of your skin.

If you have lymphoedema

Managing your condition

Man doing tai chiGetting treatment

The earlier your lymphoedema is diagnosed and treated, the less likely it is to cause you issues.

Lymphoedema specialists are usually nurses, physiotherapists, or massage therapists who are specially trained to manage lymphoedema. They provide several types of treatment including bandaging, massage, exercise, and taping.

In Canterbury, you can get treatment at the Physiotherapy Departments of Burwood and Timaru hospitals. There is also a private lymphoedema therapist at the St George's Cancer Centre (St George's Hospital), and attached to the Nurse Maude Palliative Care Service. You may be able to get help to pay for this through WINZ, the Cancer Society or another agency. Talk to your health professional about this.

Other treatment options

Other treatments for lymphoedema include:

Diuretics (substances that make you produce more urine) aren't useful for lymphoedema.

Support

You may also find it a great help to talk to other people with lymphoedema, as they can give you support and advice, and tell you about their experience. Check with your local Cancer Society for lymphoedema support groups or education sessions in your area.

Written by Canterbury lymphoedema specialists. Adapted by HealthInfo clinical advisers. Updated December 2015.

Page reference: 30588

Review key: HILYM-30588