Your lymphatic system is an arrangement of channels and glands that run through your body. The main function of the lymphatic system is to remove excess liquid from your body and assist in fighting infection.
Lymphedema is a long-term condition where excess fluids in your tissues cause swelling in your arms and legs. It develops when your lymphatic system doesn’t work properly.
There are two main types of lymphedema: primary and secondary lymphedema.
Primary lymphedema occurs when the lymphatic system is underdeveloped. It is mainly causedby faulty genes and can happen at any age. Secondary lymphedema occurs when the lymphatic system is damaged in some way. This damage can be from an injury, inflammation in the limbs (arms and legs), lack of limb movement and/or problems with drainage within the lymphatic system.
The main symptom of lymphedema is swelling in the limbs or another part of the body. The swelling usually comes and goes but may get worse over time.
Other common symptoms include:
- Skin infections.
- Fluid leaking through the skin.
- Hard, tight skin.
- Folds in the skin.
- Difficulty with movement.
- A heavy or achy feeling.
- Wart-like growths on the skin.
- Restricted range of motion.
Swelling is a common symptom, so your doctor will first try to rule out other potential culprits, such as a blood clot or infection. If you have recently had surgery or lymphatic treatment, lymphedema may be diagnosed based on your other symptoms.
If there’s no obvious cause for lymphedema, then imaging tests might be done. This includes an MRI scan, a CT scan or a Doppler ultrasound scan.
There’s no cure for lymphedema, but there are ways to manage your symptoms. You can do this by using techniques that minimise fluid build-up. Common ways to achieve this include wearing compression garments, exercising regularly, massage therapy and following a healthy diet and lifestyle.
Complex decongestive therapy (CDT) is the usual treatment for lymphedema. Initial therapy is intensive, with daily sessions to drain fluid, followed by a maintenance programme. Maintenance is made up of four parts: remedial exercise, skincare, manual lymphatic drainage (MLD) and multilayer lymphedema bandaging.
- Remedial exercises are light exercises that help with moving the lymph fluid out of your limbs.
- Skincare is vital because good skincare lowers your risk of skin infections.
- MLD is where a lymphedema therapist uses special massage techniques to move fluid into working lymph nodes, where the fluid can be drained. The therapist also teaches you how to give yourself this kind of massage.
- Lastly, multilayer lymphedema bandaging is where the muscles surrounding your lymph vessels and nodes are bandaged. This helps fluid to move through your lymphatic system.
See your doctor immediately if:
- There’s persistent swelling in your arm or leg.
- You’re already diagnosed with lymphedema and there’s a sudden increase in the size of the affected limb.
Reduce the risk of lymphedema by lowering your risk of infection:
- Avoid wearing tight-fitting clothes.
- Don’t take long, hot showers or baths.
- Don’t walk barefoot outside.
- Look for changes or breaks in your skin.
- Stay moisturised by applying lotion and drinking enough water.
- Use gloves when gardening and keep your nails short.