Lymphoedema is swelling that occurs in the soft tissues under the skin due to a build-up of lymph fluid. If lymph nodes have been removed during surgery or damaged by infection, injury, or radiation therapy, the lymph fluid may not drain properly.

Swelling usually occurs in an arm or leg, but it can also affect other areas of the body. The likelihood of developing lymphoedema after treatment depends on the extent of the surgery, other cancer treatment and your body weight. Lymphoedema can take months or years to develop. Not everyone who is at risk will develop it.

Lymphoedema may be permanent, but it can usually be managed, particularly if diagnosed early. The main signs of lymphoedema include visible swelling, which may be associated with feelings of tightness or heaviness, an aching or tingling feeling, not being able to fully move the affected limb, or pitting of the skin.

Lymphoedema requires lifelong self-care and management. The focus of treatment is to improve the flow of lymph fluid through the affected area. This will help reduce swelling and improve the health of the swollen tissue. Reducing the swelling will lower your risk of infection, improve your well-being and make movement easier.

Gentle exercise, compression stockings, and a type of massage called lymphatic drainage can all help to reduce the swelling. It is important that you consult a lymphoedema professional who can tailor a treatment plan for you based on the location and stage of the lymphoedema and any other health conditions you may have.

    — Suzanne

How to prevent and/or manage lymphoedema

  • Treat lymphoedema early so that you can deal with the problem quickly and avoid symptoms becoming worse.
  • Keep the skin healthy and unbroken to reduce the risk of infection. Avoid cuts, scratches, bites and injections in the affected area.
  • Moisturise your skin daily to prevent dry, irritated skin.
  • Engage in activities like swimming, bike-riding or using light weights to aid the flow of lymph fluid.
  • Maintain a healthy body weight.
  • Protect your skin from the sun.
  • Avoid wearing jewellery or clothing that constricts the affected area or leaves marks on your skin.
  • Take care cutting your toenails or see a podiatrist to look after your feet and nails.
  • Raise your legs if watching TV. Avoid sitting for long periods.
  • Wear a professionally-fitted compression garment, if advised by your lymphoedema practioner.
  • To find a lymphoedema practitioner, see Australasian Lymphology Association, or ask your doctor for a referral.
  • Seek medical help urgently if you think you have an infection in the affected area.
  • For more on this, see Lymphoedema.

This information was last reviewed in April 2018
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