Lymphoedema

Lymphoedema is a swelling (oedema) of part of the body, such as an arm or breast. When lymph nodes have been damaged or removed, lymph fluid may not be able to drain properly. The fluid builds up, causing swelling.

Some breast cancer treatments, such as radiation therapy to the armpit or axillary surgery, can cause lymphoedema. People who have had surgery followed by radiation therapy to the armpit are more at risk of experiencing this side effect.

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Symptoms of lymphoedema

Lymphoedema is a swelling (oedema) of part of the body, such as an arm or breast. When lymph nodes have been damaged or removed, lymph fluid may not be able to drain properly. The fluid builds up, causing swelling.

Some breast cancer treatments, such as radiation therapy to the armpit or axillary surgery, can cause lymphoedema. People who have had surgery followed by radiation therapy to the armpit are more at risk of experiencing this side effect.

Symptoms of lymphoedema are easier to manage if the condition is diagnosed and treated early. Signs of lymphoedema include swelling, heaviness or fullness in the arm, and an aching or tingling feeling. These signs may begin gradually, and they may come and go. Some people experience pain or fever, which can be caused by an infection called cellulitis in the area with lymphoedema. If you have swelling, see your doctor as soon as possible.


Preventing and managing lymphoedema

Lymphoedema can develop months or years after treatment, although some people who are at risk never develop it. In many hospitals, a lymphoedema practitioner will assess you before you have surgery and can teach you simple exercises to reduce your risk of lymphoedema.

If you develop lymphoedema, the swelling can be reduced by wearing a professionally fitted compression sleeve or by massage from a lymphoedema practitioner, physiotherapist, nurse or occupational therapist. You may also benefit from low-level laser treatment by a lymphoedema practitioner.

Long periods of physical inactivity, such as when travelling, may worsen lymphoedema symptoms. Talk to your doctor or lymphoedema practitioner about wearing a compression sleeve during air, rail or car travel.

For more on this, see Lymphoedema. You can also visit the Australasian Lymphology Association website for a directory of lymphoedema practitioners.


This information was last reviewed in August 2018
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Lymphoedema
Lymphoedema is swelling (oedema) that occurs when lymph fluid builds up in the tissues under the skin

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