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Lymph node dissection

A lymph node dissection operation involves removing some of your lymph nodes, along with some surrounding connective and fatty tissue.

Lymph is a colourless fluid that surrounds all body tissues. It drains from the tissues into small lymph vessels which lie between cells.

The small lymph vessels join together to form larger lymph vessels which then pass through a number of lymph nodes. The lymph nodes act as filters where bacteria and harmful substances are broken down. The lymph fluid then flows through larger lymph ducts and drains into your bloodstream.

A tumour can spread from its original site through lymphatic vessels to regional lymph nodes. The aim of a lymph node dissection operation is to remove the regional lymph nodes, along with any tumour that has developed in them.

You'll have a general anaesthetic for this operation (you'll be asleep). Before your operation you will see an anaesthetist and can ask them any questions you may have about your anaesthetic. There are always risks associated with having surgery. Tell your surgeons and your anaesthetist if you have any medical conditions.

Possible complications of a lymph node dissection operation

There are some possible complications of a lymph node dissection operation. These include bleeding, wound breakdown, infection, fluid collection and lymphoedema.

Bleeding after your operation can cause a collection of blood called a haematoma. Haematomas are usually removed in another operation.

Simple infections are treated with antibiotics. You may need to have antibiotics in the operating theatre.

There is a chance that your arm may swell after having a lymph node dissection. This is called lymphoedema. It happens because the flow of lymph fluid through your lymphatic vessels is disrupted after the surgery.

If this does happen, your surgeon and specialist nurses will be able to tell you how to manage the lymphoedema and refer you to specialist therapists if necessary.

Important

If you notice increasing redness, swelling or pain from your wound, tell your surgeon or the staff looking after you as soon as possible. It's much easier to treat infections that are caught early.

What to expect when you go into hospital

You will usually go to hospital the day before your operation. A nurse will settle you into the ward. You'll see a member of your surgical team, who will explain your operation, answer any questions or concerns you may have and gain your consent for the surgery.

You will need to have some routine investigations before your operation such as blood tests, X-rays and heart tracings known as ECGs. You may have already had these investigations at a pre-assessment appointment. You can read more about Having an anaesthetic.

What to expect when you come back from the operating theatre

You'll have scar where the lymph nodes were removed and stitches along the scar. There will also be a dressing over the scar. The type of stitch used depends on the surgeon's choice. If they aren't dissolving stitches, you'll need to have them taken out 12 to 14 days after your operation.

When you return to the ward, the nurses will check your wound, your pulse and your blood pressure regularly. You'll have a drip in place. This will be giving you fluids through a vein and will stay in until you're eating and drinking. It's usual to be up and about the day after your operation. Nurses will give you guidance and help.

You'll also have a wound drain to drain any fluid and bleeding away from the wound, through a tube and into a bag. This usually stays in for three to four days, but it may need to be in longer. You'll probably go home once your wound drain comes out.

What to expect when you go home

When you leave hospital, you may be given an appointment to attend the Dressing Clinic, where a nurse will look at your wound. If you have a collection of fluid (called a seroma), you may need several appointments to drain this. If your wound needs regular dressing changes after you leave hospital, the ward staff will help you organise your local practice or district nurses to do these. You may also have an appointment for the Dressing Clinic so a member of the Plastic Surgery Department can monitor your wound.

You'll also get an appointment to see your plastic surgeon in the Outpatient Clinic. It will usually be between two and six weeks after your surgery, but the timing may vary. If you cannot attend your appointment, please contact the clinic and arrange another appointment. It's important that the surgeons continue to see you after you've left hospital.

You'll feel tired after your surgery and should take things very easy for the first week or so after you leave hospital. As you feel able, build up your normal activities.

Depending on your job and the extent of your surgery, you may be able to go back to work after three to four weeks. If your job involves lifting or heavy work, you may need more time away from work. Check with your surgeon or your GP before returning to work. Your GP can organise a medical certificate to cover you for your time away from work.

You'll usually be able to drive again after three to four weeks but check with your insurance company first. Your surgeon, specialist nurses or GP will be able to advise you about this. Do not drive if you're still feeling unwell.

If you have questions about the operation or the risks involved, please contact the Plastic Surgery Outpatients Department at Christchurch Hospital on (03) 364-0471 from 8 am to 4.30 pm Monday to Saturday. Or the surgeons will answer your questions when you come in for the surgery.

Written by plastic surgeon, Jeremy Simcock. Adapted by HealthInfo clinical advisers. Last reviewed May 2021.

See also:

Communication cards in multiple languages

Having an anaesthetic

Page reference: 874176

Review key: HILYM-874168