What is Lymphoedema?

What is Lymphoedema?

Lymphoedema is a chronic (long-term) condition that causes swelling in the body’s tissue. This can lead to pain and a loss of mobility. It usually affects the arms or legs, although in some cases there may be swelling elsewhere in the body. It is caused by damage or disruption to the lymphatic system.

One function of the lymphatic system is to drain excess fluid from tissues. If the lymphatic system is disrupted or damaged, it can lose this ability and the excess fluid will cause the tissue to swell.

There are two main types of lymphoedema:

  • Primary lymphoedema – which develops at birth or shortly after puberty and is caused by faulty genes.
  • Secondary lymphoedema – caused by damage to the lymphatic system as a result of an infection, injury, trauma, or cancer. Secondary lymphoedema often develops as a side effect of cancer treatment. Surgery is often necessary to remove lymph glands to prevent a cancer from spreading, this can damage the lymphatic system.

Who is affected?

It is estimated that 1 in 10,000 people are affected by primary lymphoedema. Secondary lymphoedema is a relatively common condition, affecting an estimated 100,000 people in the UK. Secondary lymphoedema occurs more frequently in women, possibly because it can sometimes be a side effect of breast cancer treatment.

Treating lymphoedema

There is no cure for lymphoedema, but it is possible to control the symptoms using a combination of different techniques, such as massage and compression garments.

There are also things you can do to help prevent the condition getting worse. This includes taking care of your skin to avoid infection and having a healthy diet and lifestyle.


People with lymphoedema are more vulnerable to infection. This is because infection-fighting white blood cells, called lymphocytes, which travel in the lymphatic system, are prevented from reaching the part of the body where they are needed.

A bacterial infection of the skin called cellulitis is one of the most commonly reported infections in people with lymphoedema.


The main symptom of lymphoedema is swelling in all or part of a limb, which can cause problems with wearing jewellery or watches, or fitting into clothes or shoes. Other symptoms include:

  • the affected limb feeling heavy and aching
  • the affected limb losing some of its mobility
  • pain in the affected limb
  • painful joints, such as the elbow or knee, caused by swelling in the limb
  • repeated skin infections in the affected limb
  • the skin on the affected limb becoming hard and tight, and blisters or wart-like growths developing on the surface